Planning For The Off Season

David Dunne

June 24, 2016

Sports Science

Professional sports seasons can be a long and brutal affair. For many athletes the season can often consist of 6-day weeks, sometimes 7, for up to 48 weeks of the year, often with 2-3 tough sessions daily. These daily sessions include not only sport specific training, but also strength training, conditioning, prehabilitation, rehabilitation, and the list goes on! 

This is not an easy ask and is why so few individuals manage to reach the top let alone stay up there. All these hours in the gym, on the field and in competition, add up and take their toll on the body. For this reason, it is essential for competitive athletes to incorporate a period of rest and regeneration following the conclusion of their season. This ensures not only physical but also mental recovery before launching themselves into another pre-season campaign (1,2). 

But what are the consequences of that typical 4-6 week post-season break? What impact will this period of detraining have on anthropometric, physiological and performance markers? And is there anything that can be done to negate these? Let's take a closer look… 

A performance decline is of course expected during the off-season and lives up to the old saying “use it or lose it”. However, the magnitude of the performance decline appears to be related to the chosen regeneration strategy (complete training cessation vs. reduced training), initial level of fitness, and total time under a reduced or absent training stimulus (3,4). 


Maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max) typically declines between 6-14% in well-trained athletes over a 3-6 week detraining period (5,6). However, this can be reduced with a shorter break (7). These declines in VO2 max are the sum of decreases in cardio respiratory variables such as blood volume, cardiac output, heart dimensions, stroke volume and maximal voluntary ventilation (8). 

Skeletal muscle tissue is not immune to these detraining effects. Reductions in capillary density (9), oxidative capacity (3), mean fibre cross-sectional area (10) and fibre type changes (11) have all been documented following periods of training cessation. Together, these translate into declines in strength, power and muscle mass, exactly what most athletes have spent the previous 48 weeks trying to improve! 

So how can athletes maintain basic levels of performance during the off-season? Training reduction strategies (volume and intensity) appear to be the most beneficial plan of action for elite athletes. Not only will this maintain basic levels physical performance, but it will also be beneficial for multiple physiological systems that will help athletes to cope with a rapid increase in training volume and intensity in pre-season camp. 


The Strength and Conditioning Coach and athlete should agree on a realistic off-season program with appropriate reductions in volume and intensity. An absolute minimum of 2 training sessions per week is required. The program should be periodised to prepare the athlete for the transition into the pre-season period, correcting any strength imbalances and restoring strength profiles. Individual training history, accumulated training and game exposure, injury history and athlete preferences should all be considered. 


1. Bompa, T. (1999). Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. 4th Edition. HumanKinetics, Champaign, IL.

2. Issurin, V. (2008). Block Periodisation. Breakthrough in sport training. Ultimate Athlete Concepts. Michigan.

3. Mujika, I. & Padilla, S. (2000a). Detraining loss of training induced physiological and performance adaptations.Part I. Sports Medicine, 30, 79-87.

4. Mujika, I. & Padilla, S. (2000b). Detraining loss of training induced physiological and performance adaptations.Part II. Sports Medicine, 30, 145-154.

5. Martin, W.H., Coyle, E.F., Bloomfield, S.A. & Ehasani, A.A. (1986). Effects of physical deconditioning after intense endurance training on left ventricular dimensions and stroke volume. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 7, 982-989.

6. Petibois, C. & Deleris, G. (2013). Effects of short and long term detraining on the metabolic response to endurance exercise. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 24, 320-325.

7. Houmard, J., Hortobagyi, T., Jons, R., Bruno, N., Nute, C., Shinegarger, M. & Welborn, J. (1992). Effect of short term training cessation on performance measures in distance runners. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 13, 572-576.

8. Cullinane, E., Sady, S., Vadeboncoeur, L., Burke, M. & Thompson, P. (1986). Cardiac size and VO2max do not decrease after short term exercise cessation. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 18, 420-424.

9. Housten M., Bentzen, H., & Larsen, H. (1979) Interrelationships between skeletal muscle adaptations and performance as studied by detraining and retraining. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 105, 163-170.

10. Bangsbo, J. & Mizuno, M. (1988). Morphological and metabolic alterations in soccer players with detraining and retraining and their relation to performance. In: Science and Football: Proceedings of the First World Congress of Science and Football. Ed: Reilly, B., Lees, A., Davids, K., Murphy, W.J. Liverpool: E&FN Spon. 114-124.

11. Larsson, L. & Ansved, T. (1985). Effects of long term physical training and detraining on enzyme histochemical and functional skeletal muscle characteristics in man. Muscle and Nerve, 8, 714-722.

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