An off-season for Runners?

I remember in high school everyone had had these team shirts with “motivational” quotes. My favorite was “Runners have no offseason!” Soooo tough! Looking at it now and then seeing what goes on now, that’s probably not my first choice for a shirt. In high school and college, We went from cross country to indoor, to outdoor track. If you qualified for State Finals in High School or the National Championships in college, then you went all the way to mid-June. Then turned around and went right into cross country. Now, luckily I had a college coach that wouldn’t let the better runners race until October for XC and we never really trained for indoor track. We used it as a block to get ready for outdoors, but a lot of coaches just pushed it to the max 24/7 and it’s an easy way to burn kids out. When I started coaching adults in 2006, we didn’t really have year-round marathon races. Sure, they existed in the winter but they were not nearly as popular as they are now. I feel like there were two marathon seasons- April and May, then October and November. Now it’s pushed to late December and into January/February with races. June is becoming more popular with races in the Northern part of the US, or people start traveling to the southern hemisphere to find some races. When we first started, there were natural periods for off-seasons- summer and winter. Now, I feel like there truly isn’t an off-season. So today I want to discuss the off-season and what it means to take one. 

First, what does “off-season” actually mean? When you look at all the major sports like football, baseball, basketball, golf, and hockey, it’s a block of time where they just seemingly disappear, right? I am a baseball guy and a huge Detroit Tigers fan and once October hits they disappear until Spring Training in March. Ok, let’s be honest, they disappeared somewhere around June this year (2022). You know what I mean, though. Are these guys/gals really taking 2-3 months off from everything? No, it’s not a complete rest from activity, but it is a time to work on weaknesses, recover from a nagging injury, and hone skills. To me, an “off-season” for running would be several weeks of either very specific training to work on weaknesses, or really a restful time where the body has ample time to regenerate and recover, which will allow for a dedicated block of hard training. 

What I currently see for a lot of people is not anything that resembles an off-season. What I see is an inadequate downtime, a few weeks of buildup, then jumping right into another training segment. Sometimes they are chasing after a qualifier, but I also think that they assume that if they aren’t training hard, they’ll lose that precious gainz. The reality is, you are a lot more likely to make more progress sooner by taking a half step back and then pushing forward again. 

Speaking of, let’s go back a half step. Remember I said that I saw an off-season being either really focused training or generally lax training? I want to go back to that because I think there are two distinct places for these. 

Since I am working on this in the fall, let’s start with that. With training hard all summer, then holding it together the first few weeks of the school year, it’s hard enough. Then throw in a marathon, and you are ready for a break! For most of my audience, after an October marathon, it’s time for an extended break. Not only for the things I just mentioned, but also because they go from downtime to the big holiday season with Thanksgiving and the Christmas season. There’s a ton going on. Taking a break from a really structured training program isn’t a bad idea here. Plus, you throw in winter training and it’s a good excuse to take a break. If I get can get a runner to do a workout a week, a long run every 2 weeks, and maintain roughly 65-70% of their peak volume, then we can make it through the holidays, and not lose much (if any) overall fitness, fully recover from marathon training (both mentally and physically), and get recharged to go after another marathon in the spring. 

Putting this into practice:

Let’s say you run a mid-october Marathon and take two weeks off for recovery. You take another two weeks to gradually build your volume back to say 50% of what you were at the peak. So, if you peaked at 60 miles per week, the goal would be 30 miles per week of easy running. From there, you could start a 6-week base plan that would be 40 miles per week. That would a) put you at about 65% of your peak volume and b) put you to the end of December with no real commitments to running. Heck, if you want to jump into a Turkey Trot and a Jingle Bell Run to be silly with your running crew, this is a perfect time! Then you can get to the new year without being over-committed to running (parties and get together’s are on you!) and hopefully itching to get back out there. I just find that when we try to push too hard through this time frame, we lose interest later on. If we start a marathon segment already depleted mentally and a little bit physically it’s hard to stay motivated for another 4-5 months. In terms of progression, it’s like doing workouts- it’s not the workout that makes you fit, it’s the recovery where the adaptations take place! Taking that recovery after a hard segment is where those adaptations can fully take hold. 

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The second scenario is where we want to really focus on something that’s a weakness, or even nonexistent in our training. A big area for the athletes I work with is their overall speed. In the winter, this doesn’t really make sense for people who are dealing with cold, snow, and wind for a few months. However, if they ran a spring marathon, the idea of starting marathon training again in June is not ideal for starting up the grind of marathon training again. So, a good time to reduce volume, and increase intensity is after a spring marathon and then before the fall marathon season. I have written about this before, but it also reduces the buildup time for the marathon in the fall. 

The idea here is to work on true overall speed. Let’s face it, we are doing speed during the first weeks of the marathon segment, but it’s not intended to take your 5k time down, per se. Rather, it’s the speed in terms of its faster than the marathon pace. If we do a 6-12 week speed segment, we can bring down some of those times. Then we come back to the marathon and some of those places don’t seem so scary. I think something like this is key if you’ve done a few marathons in a row and just seem to have plateaued. 

The nice thing about doing something like this is that you can back off the volume. Easy runs will be a little shorter. SOS days will be a lot shorter in terms of volume. So you can work on something with less of a time commitment. As a parent, I know how valuable this can be during the summer months. A lot of times training takes a back seat to entertaining children during the summer. 

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Again, 60-70% of your peak volume would be just fine for a speed segment. You can get a lot done with that. Using our example, if you are hitting 60 miles a week during marathon training, then 40-45 for a speed segment would be plenty of volume to allow you to get everything you need to in. 

You may also want to consider something that doesn’t involve your run training, but maybe something like strength training or nutrition. Maybe what’s holding you back are solid habits. Taking time in a down period can be key to making new habits. You may want to take 6-8 weeks to establish those habits while keeping training lower. So this might be a combination of base training coupled with a skill development component like strength or nutrition. Honestly, I’d pick one or the other. I don’t like overloading a person with too many things. If you find yourself struggling with recovery, I’d first look at getting help with nutrition. If you find yourself breaking down, maybe start with strength. These are both going to be long-term projects, but the best time to start them is when you are in an off-season. It takes time to adjust and 6-8 weeks where this can be a focus is a very good start. 

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I didn’t touch on this, because I am still working on my own thoughts with this, but if you are injured and it has to do with form, finding out specifically what you need to work on would be a great off-season modality to add. We can get into whether it’s a strength or cueing issue (it’s probably a combo), but seeking out someone who does gait analysis and provides programs can be another great resource to look at. So, it might be a form of strength training you add, but something very specific to your needs. 

The bottom line is that if we push the envelope nonstop, we plateau out. If we never work on skills or we never recover or never just even take a mental break from the hard work that is training, we set ourselves up for burnout, disappointment, injury, etc. What should be an overall joy in our life, a part of who we are, becomes a job and is more of a burden. Off-seasons are key and in the long term they will make you more successful, and more balanced, and you’ll enjoy the sport a lot more. 

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