The NPB Mailbag: How Do I Stay Motivated In the Off Season?
You don't need to hammer yourself 24/7/365 (366 on a leap year) to meet your fitness goals.
Dear NPB -
I get seasonal affective disorder (SAD). When the time changes, the mornings get dark, the temp drops, and I lose motivation to (cycle) outside. I struggle to make up for it inside on the Peloton in terms of volume. I crave comfort foods, eat out of boredom, and play video games instead of working out.
For the past few years I've been caught in this cycle of putting on weight and losing fitness in the winter. Then I train hard and eat right all spring, summer, and fall. Just when I'm starting to get some momentum and feel fit, we're back at winter.
I want to drop 30-35 lbs and stay in that ballpark, where I'm not some super fit athlete, just a healthy weight. It seems the only time I could stay at that place was when I was riding 10+ hours a week and not taking winter off. How do I break this cycle?
Hey Arik –
The super short answer is that there’s a middle ground between going 100 percent all year long and letting the wheels fall off the wagon.
But, before we dig in, please understand that I’m not a good substitute for a licensed therapist. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression to be taken seriously. I can offer some strategies, but if this thing is eating at your soul, I strongly urge you to seek professional help.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled program.
You’re in a tough spot, but it might help to know that you’re not alone. According to the National Institutes of Health, up to three percent of the US population is affected by SAD, roughly defined as depression that hits during the winter months.
This being a nutrition newsletter, I can give you a bunch of nutritional strategies. For example, sunshine is a major source of vitamin D—and vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression and other mental disorders. With that in mind, it might make sense to supplement or increase your intake of foods rich in vitamin D, like fatty fish and cow liver.
But I don’t think nutrition is the root solution here. Maybe this is more about your activity level.
Hey, athlete! How about subscribing to NPB?
(Not so) fun fact, I also wrestle with SAD. Mine comes from a low-simmering year-round depression that used to flare up in cold weather because I, like you, would stop exercising. This was no bueno given there’s a ton of research validating the benefits of exercise for treating depression. A new study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine even suggests that intense activity is as effective as drugs and therapy—if not more effective— for treating depression and anxiety.
With this in mind, it could be not only the lack of sun triggering your depression, but the lack of exercise as well. So it’s worse that a vicious cycle. It’s like a vicious Mobius strip.
I’m not suggesting you need to continue your 10+ hour slogs through the dead of winter. That BJSM study suggested that short to mid-duration bouts of intense exercise work just fine. Consider it a “less is more” situation.
Even the pros can use a break sometimes.
There’s nothing wrong with hibernation. Bears invented it 55 million years ago and never looked back. And they’re complete badasses, right up there with rhinos, moose, sharks, and five-time-Tour-de-France winner Eddy Merckx. I’m not saying you should sleep for seven months. I am saying that it’s okay to do less exercise for a few months during winter.
I called my friend Dr. Marcus Elliott, founder of the Peak Performance Project (P3) in Santa Barbara to back me up. Marcus has trained just about every type of pro athlete you can think of, ranging from NBA and MLB players to pro surfers to Olympic champions.
(I don’t name drop often, but when I do, it’s a #namedropbomb.)
“Generally, athletes need a psychological break,” Marcus agreed, “and maybe even more than that, a chance to step back and make some changes to their program.
“It’s a chance to iterate on your last development cycle, do something smarter, goal set, and get hungry,” he added. “From a physical side, sometimes after a long season, have a little period where you don't do anything aggressive. Athletes are still active, hiking, swimming, running on the beach—still doing some activity, but at a really mechanical load-reduced level, so that they can accrue some long-term recovery and reset things from a tissue quality standpoint.”
In other words, you don’t need to spend the winter earning Strava badges—but don’t stop moving entirely either. With this in mind, I propose two strategies.
Strategy One: Have a plan.
Take a couple weeks off, if you want, to relax and allow your body some deep recovery. Eat some stuff you probably shouldn’t eat—but don’t do it out of boredom or guilt or mommy issues. Do it because you eat clean the rest of the time, so now you’re indulging a little.
Put all your carby treats in a mental “cake box.” Open the box knowingly and enjoy the treats you take from it—but keep it closed most of the time.
Use that break to create an off season training plan. If outdoor, cold weather cycling doesn’t work for you, don’t do that. If Peloton doesn’t work for you, don’t do that either. But do something. Here are three viable options off the top of my head.
Zwift. These folks do an impressive job of bringing the beloved outdoor cycling experience inside—and compacting it. A 30- to 60-minute Zwift ride can kick even a veteran rider’s butt. As a bonus, you race other real humans in real time and win stuff. You’re playing video games!
BODI. My alma mater, Beachbody, recently relaunched with a new platform called “Health Esteem” that focuses on body acceptance and finding the fun in fitness. It sounds like you might benefit from that.
Strength Training. There’s no better crosstraining for a cyclist. Not only will it help strengthen your skeleton (Weak bones are an issue with many cyclists), but it can also help increase your power. And it’s kind of bad-ass.
The only rub about using any of these strategies is that you’ll go a few months without those 1,500-calorie-burnin’ endurance workouts we burrito-lovin’ cyclists cherish so. You’ll probably need to eat a little less. Hopefully, because you’re taking a mindful approach to your fitness in the off season, that will help with continued mindful eating as well.
Don’t think of this as a break in the momentum. You’re just pressing down the clutch pedal so you can shift to a higher gear—a clever metaphor probably lost on anyone younger than 40.
Strategy Two: Accept yourself.
You’re still probably going to add a little weight. That’s okay. While 30-35 pounds may not be ideal for you, 5-10 pounds (maybe even a little more) doesn’t matter, especially considering, as an endurance athlete, your “ideal” is probably most people’s “awfully thin.”
In the worst case, you might need to sacrifice your career as a Calvin Klein underwear model, but we can’t all be Justin Bieber. Thank God.
Given you’ve been trapped in this cycle so long, you’ve proven you can drop the pounds when you put your mind to it. Instead of stressing about excessive weight fluctuation, relax and enjoy the process of healthy, moderate weight fluctuation.
Don’t stress about a lack of fitness when you return to your outdoor three-hour epics. Yes, there are those cycling freaks in the peloton who seem to stay fit year-around, but most human athletes ebb and flow. You just don’t see it because we’re all not on the same schedule.
When you’re peaking, you don’t notice and/or pity those slower than you, do you? With that in mind, don’t stress about being slower than others. Nobody is critical of your performance except you. In psychology circles, they call this concern The Spotlight Effect.
However, if I’m wrong and the haters be hatin’, they’re probably a-holes, so screw them. You’ll stomp them in a month or two. That’s called the Training Smart Year Around Instead of Burning Out Every December Effect.
You got this, Arik. See ya on the road come springtime!
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