I’ve been running for five years, and this year was brutal. Although I ran more, I struggled with minor aches and pains, and my times were the same or slower than last season’s. I know I need to take time off of racing, but can you explain how to do this without losing my fitness?
The humbling seasons often teach us the most about how to improve performance. You’re already on the right track in realising you need time to recover. Here are the details on what that means, why it’s necessary, and how and when to schedule some downtime.
What is an off-season?
In my opinion, the off-season is the most important phase of training because it lays the foundation for your next phase of training and racing.
An off-season isn’t about not running; it’s about not racing and doing race-specific workouts. A typical off-season can range from about four to eight weeks (or longer) and is a phase where you take time off from a structured plan and racing. Perhaps the most useful way of thinking of the off-season is as a time to evaluate the past season or year so you can design a plan to reach your future goals.
Why do we need off-seasons?
Going without an off-season is a little like going with too few sleep hours in your day. You may not realise the consequences in the first few years, but if you continue to go without and race on, it will eventually lead to a decrease in performance, mental burnout and, in many cases, frustrating aches and pains.
Simply put, we need time off of racing to recover, reflect and readjust. Training and racing places great demands on our bodies and minds, while the off-season allows recovery that paves the way for healthy training and racing in the future.
The off-season heals the mind (to prevent burnout) and the body (to prevent injuries). It is a time to reflect on what went right and what went wrong and modify to evolve your running performance. When you have a season plagued with aches and pains and lacking performance gains, it is a sign that you were possibly pushing too hard, running too much volume, racing too much or even struggling from accumulated fatigue from a lack of an off-season.
When you have a strong season during which you feel good and perform well, it means your training is on target and you can use it again in future seasons, or make a few small tweaks to evolve it. The off-season allows you to get honest about your performance, and make changes to heal, recover and improve.
How to run during your off-season
Your off-season will vary based on your past performance and current running health.
After a brutal season: If you’ve had a season plagued with aches and pains (even minor ones), the off-season should include time off of running to heal the body. For some, this may mean one to four weeks of low-impact cross-training including cycling, swimming or using the elliptical machine, plus strengthening and flexibility exercises. Others may be able to heal by simply laying off the moderate, hard and long runs and sticking with shorter 30- to 60-minute easy-effort running.
After a “meh” season: If you had an okay season - not super and not awful - your off-season might include several weeks of short, easy-effort 30 to 45 minute running workouts to allow your body time to adapt and recover from the demands of your racing season. Also doing a variety of cross-training activities can rejuvenate your routine and provide low-impact workouts that you can do at a moderate to higher intensity with less impact on the body. This will go a long way in maintaining fitness and providing a break from being on autopilot.
After a strong season: If you had a strong season performance- and health-wise, your off-season may start with several weeks of short, easy-effort runs to recover from races, and then evolve into a playful mix of workouts at varied intensities including fartlek, intervals, tempo, hills and easy runs. When we’re not constantly progressing our mileage and intensity week to week as we do in a structured training program, the body can recover more readily. And when you invest in an off-season, the chances that you will have stronger race seasons are much greater, which leads to the opportunity for a more playful off-season.
As you navigate the off-season, it is always wise to review your life performance as well as your training and racing. Your sleep, nutrition, stress levels and work hours all play a role in your overall performance, and the off-season is the perfect time to tune in and make adjustments. The off-season is the foundation upon which your future performance is built. The more you invest in it, the better your performance will be.