Why You Need an Off Season

“Nobody takes an off season out here.” My manager made this off-the-cuff remark to me the other day. And he’s right. Maybe it’s our perfect-for-running, year round, moderate temperatures or our general Type A attitudes, but most athletes I know train consistently throughout the winter (or, I should say, “winter”). We fear losing months of hard earned fitness, but with that we sacrifice the opportunity to rest and heal our bodies.

I raced a lot this year, and hit all my goals in my A races. It was totally successful from a training standpoint, but I could feel the burnout creeping in towards the end of the season. Minor niggles turned into little annoying injuries. I was tired all the time and my appetite was all over the place. Sometimes I was so hungry I could eat my own arm, and other times I just couldn’t be bothered to make food (that’s how I knew something was up. I’m always hungry.) My sleep was inconsistent. My heart rate always seemed high. All signs pointing to overtraining. So now that my 50 mile race is over, I’m taking my first ever dedicated off season. And I am actually enjoying it! I took an entire week off from all exercise, and now I’m going to yoga a few times a week, I’ve gotten back on my bike, and I’m planning some hikes with friends. I’m doing all the stuff that got squeezed out of my life when I was putting in 60-70 mile weeks.

I know the overachiever in you doesn’t believe me that taking time off will benefit you in the long run, so here are a few reasons why your 2015 self will thank you.

Reflect on the Year

A benefit of not drinking during training is that I am a total lightweight in the off season. Cheap date!

A benefit of not drinking during training is that I am a total lightweight in the off season. Cheap date!

Take a look back through your training log. Read race reports. Start thinking about how you can better your training. Did your times improve throughout the year or did you suffer burnout or injury? Can you get better by racing less, or more? If you are racing hard more than once every 6 weeks, you may need more recovery time. But if you only have a few big races over the year, maybe you could benefit by doing shorter tuneup races in between the big ones. Did you feel successful and are you happy with your results? If not, maybe it’s time to try something different. We are each an experiment of one so you need to keep searching until you find what works. I’m in the high volume camp and tend to get injured if I do too much speedwork, but some people do much better with moderate volume mixed with higher intensity workouts. Or you might want to hire a coach to figure it out for you. Sometimes it takes that outside perspective to turn a mediocre training cycle into something special.

Plan Your Race Calendar

Now that you’ve reflected on your year, it’s time to start building out the structure of your 2015 racing season. What are your goals? Will you try a new distance or crush that PR you’ve been chasing? Whatever the goal, you need a plan to get there. If you are focusing on the Boston Marathon for example, you’ll want to include a period of hill training (for the ups AND downs) in your plan. This periodization will give your calendar a skeleton on which to start adding specific workouts to. Start with the big picture and then zero in on the month, the week, and then day. Having the race schedule laid out can also help you decide when to take vacations. Because, let’s be honest, we plan our trips around big races and not the other way around.

Here’s a look at my tentative 2015 racing schedule. The first half of the year will be focused on roads, and then I switch to trail running for the second half.

February 1- KP Half Marathon
April 21- Boston Marathon
June 20- Double Dipsea
August 29- Tamalpa 50K
October 18- Humboldt Half
December 5- TNFEC 50 mile

Respect the Recovery

The physical, mental, and emotional stress of training can take a real toll. Constantly focusing on pace and mileage can take the fun out of running, and running yourself into the ground won’t benefit your future goals; it just sets you up for injury.

Can you believe I was unhappy running here? I would have slapped myself if I could.

Can you believe I was unhappy running here? I would have slapped myself if I could.

I’ve been only running if I *feel* like it since my race. Not forcing myself to do anything gives me a sense of freedom. But despite that desire to run, it hasn’t gone as smoothly as I’d like. On Saturday I went on a run exploring trails on the less-visited side of Mt. Tam. There were waterfalls, mini river crossings, lush green forests. Just gorgeous. Around mile 8 I started to run out of gas. I took a GU and things evened out again. But then we had a mega climb in front of us. Since this was a new trail to me, I had no idea just how long it was. Turned out to be a two mile, 1,300 ft. climb. Yikes. I started up okay, but boy did things change quickly. I ran out of water and fuel. And then I basically had a mental breakdown because I wanted it to be over so bad. Like, I was on the verge of tears. I was a hot mess. My mind was just not ready for that level of hard. So I’m respecting that by taking more days completely off. You have to let yourself fully heal and be well (physically and mentally) to compete as you want, and this takes time. But the good news is you have plenty of that to be ready to crush it.

Build Strength

During a hard training cycle, most runners forgo strength training. If we only have a few hours for a workout, we are going to squeeze in every last mile instead of cutting it short to do some squats. I’m a professional who knows the extensive benefits of strength training and even I can’t force myself to do more than one strength session a week. But the offseason is a great time to revisit the gym (shit weather + more free time = easier decision).

Strength training can help prevent injuries by correcting imbalances, build more speed and power up hills, and give you something new to obsess over. Here are some of my favorite strength exercises for runners, starting with stability and ending with power:

Kettlebell swing

Kettlebell swings build tremendous glute strength and hip extension. Something most runners are lacking!

Single leg squats and deadlifts
Step ups (amazing for building hill climbing strength)
Kettlebell swings
Barbell cleans
Box jumps

So with all that being said, take those extra days off if you don’t want to run. Make running enjoyable again instead of having it be an obligation. Go skiing or snowshoeing or hiking with your poor non-running friends who get neglected the other 10 months out of the year. Just chill out a little. It really is quite nice when you can let go. And your body will thank you for it.

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