"Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard." ~ Kevin Durant

Sports requires more than talent, it requires focused hard work and the kind of motivation that continually sets the bar of self-improvement higher.

Athletes and aspiring athletes learn early to value their time during the off-season and use it effectively to build strength and flexibility as well as to restore mental and physical balance.

Athletes whose job it is to remain in top form mentally and physically can teach the rest of us a great deal not just about maintaining but improving fitness in our lives. This includes knowing what to do in the off-season, whether that's for a competitive sport or during a time of year that makes it hard to enjoy our favorite recreational activities.

What is off-season training? How does it fit with the rest of the training cycle?

The off-season is one of four periods in the life cycle of engagement in sports. Each season has specific goals, objectives and strategies. Here's the whole cycle:

  • In-season, the time of active engagement in a sport

  • Post-season, the time immediately following or including the last game or tournament, at least three weeks 

  • Off-season, the time following post-season until six weeks prior to the first game or tournament

  • Pre-season, the six weeks preceding the beginning of the new season

In-season, the goal is maintenance. Your objective is to maintain the level of your performance throughout the season, as this is not a time for longer workouts since you are already working as you engage in your sport. You should reduce training to compensate for that and direct your attention toward the health and physical maintenance that keeps you mentally alert and physically strong.

Post-season, the goal is recovery, and your objective is to rebalance mentally and physically. Your in-season focus on specific physical and mental requirements necessarily causes some imbalance, and it's time to address that with activities that have totally different requirements. Some football coaches might require their players to take a ballet class during off-season, for example. Golf or gymnastics would be other activities with very different mental and physical requirements from football. If you have an injury from the previous season, this is the time for healing and determining what you need to do to prevent the injury in the next season. 

Off-season, the goal is to gain -- strength, power, flexibility, agility and balance. Advances in these areas not only improve performance in your sport, they help prevent injuries. As it happens, these improvements are good not only for competitive athletes but for all of us each day.

Pre-season, the goal is to prepare for the demands of the upcoming season with sport-specific activities. This program involves activities five days a week directed not only toward strength, power, flexibility, agility and balance but conditioning. This is the final push toward a better, stronger in-season with reduced injury risk.

Let's talk more about off-season training

The goals of off-season training are to improve performance in a sport and to help prevent injuries. Both goals are met by advancing strength, power, flexibility, agility and balance. Here are specific exercises for each area and specifics of how that area of enhancement reduces the risk of injury:

Strength training. Also called resistance training, strength training works your muscles by using resistance. Examples of strength exercises include

  • Lifting weights

  • Using resistance bands

  • Using your body weight for resistance, by doing push-ups, pull-ups, crunches, leg squats or push-ups against a wall

  • Using weight machines at a gym

How does strength training reduce the risk of injury? "Resistance training provides dynamic loads on the joints, therefore creating physiological changes in the bone, muscle, and connective tissue (tendons and ligaments)." As bones are remodeled, it increases bone density, making the bones stronger. Further, "If there is an imbalance of agonist and antagonist muscles, such as the hamstrings and quadriceps, there is an even more increased risk of injury." If one muscle is under-trained and doesn't have the functional capacity to respond to sudden events, it can cause an injury.  A full-body resistance program helps lower this risk.

Power training. "Power describes your ability to generate force quickly . . . When training for power, quality of movement is more important than quantity of repetitions." Whatever exercises you perform in this category should be in short sets with maximum intensity and rest periods in between sufficient to allow you to do the next set with maximum intensity. Specific exercises for power training include squat jumping, clapping push-ups, medicine ball overhead throws and two-footed hurdle jumps. 

What is the physiological basis of power training to reduce injury? Power requires that our bodies effectively absorb the forces of impact with each step. This involves a complicated set of mental and physical responses and a strong system of muscles, bones and ligaments to support impact. "When we run, our bodies experience forces four times the weight of our bodies." Power training improves your body's ability "to distribute the impact of these forces proportionately." At the same time it increases the strength of your hamstrings, glutes, quads, hips, and knees. Slow, controlled movement is best.

Flexibility training. Flexibility refers to range of motion. A more limited range of motion decreases the overall level of athletic performance and increases the risk of injury just as a tree that is less flexible is more likely to crack and blow over in a storm. A natural part of the aging process is that muscles shorten, which is also something that happens with decreased activity or constant focus on exercises that contract the muscles. Stretching exercises maintain and improve the length of our muscles so we can continue to enjoy our abilities without pain. Stretching exercises before a workout session make the session more efficient.

Specifically how do stretching exercises reduce the risk of injury? An over-emphasis on muscle-contracting exercises like some of those mentioned under strength training creates an imbalance, and imbalance results in injury. It causes "some muscles and joints to overcompensate for other ones that are too tight to engage properly." In addition, when muscles are loose and stretchy, you have a greater range of movement. That greater range allows you to complete other exercises more fully (deeper squats, for example), which enhances strength and provides more protection against injury.

What are good exercises for flexibility? Yoga and ballet immediately come to mind. These are two activities specifically directed toward stretching muscles. Movement is likely to be slow and controlled, which adds strength as it lengthens muscles, increases flexibility and decreases the likelihood of injury. Stretching exercises for warmups are important, are similar to or derive from yoga: standing hamstring stretches, piriformis stretch, lunge with spinal twist, triceps stretch, figure four stretch, 90/90 stretch, frog stretch, butterfly stretch, shoulder squeeze, sidebend stretch, lunging hip flexor stretch, lying pectoral stretch, knee to chest stretch, seated neck stretch, lying quad stretch, sphinx pose, extended puppy pose, pretzel stretch, reclining bound angle pose, standing quad stretch, or knees to chest.

Agility trainingAgility is your body's ability to be quick, graceful, and nimble. It is how effectively and efficiently you can move, change direction and the position of your body while maintaining control. Agility differs from flexibility in that it has to do with the speed of an appropriate response. It can require flexibility but is not the same thing. Agility engages the appropriate muscles in an appropriate way to respond quickly to rapidly changing situations. The immediacy of the response requires the kind of training that produces instinctive correct movements. 

Agility training exercises help improve speed, explosive power, coordination, and specific sports skillsExercises include lateral plyometric jumps, forward running high-knee drills, lateral running side-to-side drills, dot drills, jump box drills, L drills, plyometric agility drills and shuttle runs. Non-linear movements engage more muscles than straight-forward activities. These exercises train for quick starting, stopping, turning and jumping as well as other sudden movements by improving reflexes, reaction time and strength. 

How does agility training prevent injury? Many injuries happen "when the body falls out of alignment while in motion." By enhancing balance and control, agility training helps maintain correct posture and and alignment during movement. In addition, agility training helps build pathways in the brain for fast responses to various stimuli. At first, the responsive movements will seem forced, but as you practice, they will become more natural. Improved balance and more instinctive (correct) reactions reduce the possibility of injury.

Balance. While all training improves balance, flexibility and agility training are particularly well-suited to enhancing it. Yoga-style exercises involving slow, sustained movement and/or still positions on one foot that are difficult initially become easier with repetition. In contrast, the quick movements involved in agility training help you maintain balance by training your body to react instinctively and naturally to sudden changes in your physical stance. The benefits of improved balance for everyone at any age are clear: fewer falls result in fewer injuries.

Don't forget nutrition

Your off-season goal is to gain. This gain is in the areas of strength, power, flexibility, agility and balance. These gains won't come without hard, focused, five-days-a-week work, and that demands energy. While your calorie requirements may therefore be higher than in, say, the post-season part of your cycle, it's still important, perhaps even more important, to make every calorie count. 

Dr. Joel Fuhrman promotes a "Nutritarian Diet," a diet that values and ranks foods by the maximum nutrient density with the minimum calories. And abbreviated Aggregate Nutrient Density Index provides a quick glimpse of how specific foods are valued in this eating plan. According to Dr. Fuhrman, the Nutritarian Diet leads to "improved immune competence, which leads to fewer disruptions in training and competition. The focus on plant-based foods containing a complex combination of antioxidants and other phytonutrients helps to lessen the undesirable consequences of exercise-induced oxidative stress . . . Proper supplementation, consumption of adequate calories, and consuming the right amount and types of protein are all important factors" in a diet for an athlete who wants to remain in top condition. 

Best performance requires optimal health and conditioning . . . and the off-season is the time to ensure that happens

Using your off-season time to advance your physical, mental and nutritional health requires a plan. Just as we say about businesses that "a business that fails to plan plans to fail," so we can say that a person who fails to plan for maximum health and success in athletics will fail to achieve it. Your year is structured to make your on-season as successful as possible, and off-season is the time to ensure that success by advancing your physical abilities, mental acuity, nutrition and overall sense of well-being.

Set out written goals and measurable objectives for your off-season, such as keeping a schedule with specific times for training, meals, rest, and planned specific exercises for each workout. Professional support can help tailor your program to meet your individual requirements, such as through a strength coach or personal trainer. Overall, keep records of your progress and always remember to integrate superior nutrition into your plan, as it is a very important piece to making progress. Also, consider the role of technology, such as apps that will help you keep track of your nutrition and workouts.

The lessons of off-season training for athletes are valuable for us all. Exploring how to achieve maximum health and fitness, then planning for it, is more likely to produce the results you seek than living haphazardly. Choose to plan for your success, and know that then, even when you fail (or are injured), your recovery will be faster.

"Our athletes are so healthy because we plan for them to be so healthy. Nothing is ever by chance." ~ Coach Mike Boyle