Written by: Zac Marion
Thinking of the time between your last race of the year and your first race of the new season as strictly an “off”-season is doing yourself a disservice. I’m sure you put in a lot of hard work and noticed some new fitness over the last year. Now why would you want to let that whither away, just to start over in a couple months?
Off seasons are great opportunities to set yourself up for even more progress. Roll as much of that fitness as you can into the new training cycle so you are constantly progressing year after year. For me, capitalizing on the down time using a two phased approach really helps me completely recover from the last season while preparing well for the season ahead.
Phase One- Recovery Phase
There comes a point in training or after big efforts where you are just DONE. It could be mental, physical, or a little bit of both. This is when it’s time to transition from training and performance into a recovery based period. I tend to start this phase immediately after my last race of the season or whenever I mentally (burnout) or physically (fatigue) see the signs that it’s time to get recovered before a break in the system occurs.
Phase one of your off season is that temperate breath that stokes the glowing embers left from the hot burn of your training/racing. Be gentle with them and they can be the catalyst for the next season’s fire. Think of this as your forced time off to keep you happy and healthy for a long journey into the sport.
What this phase can look like:
- Sleep an extra hour every night since the body heals the most during REM
- Stay active and run only when you want, but NO structured training
- EAT! Gaining some weight is healthy (trust me, we’ll cover this in a little bit)
- Enjoy friends and family, they probably miss you
- Focus on hobbies or passions OTHER than running/fitness.
Definitely stay active, but run only when you want to. It’s ok if you don’t or if you have an injury that won’t let you. This phase is only a couple weeks and you won’t lose too much fitness in such a small timeframe. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep the metabolism from shutting down. Get into a pool, do some work in the weight room, play basketball or hop on spin bike if you aren’t keen on running right now. Just make sure to do something a couple times a week to keep the body moving.
I typically recommend anywhere from 2-3 weeks for this phase. In general, this phase is all about transitioning from heavy training into recovery and staying away from the sport to prevent complete burnout. Enjoy this time and invest in some of the places in your life that get neglected during your racing season.
Phase Two- Preparation Phase
This tends to be one of my favorite parts of training. You’ve rested and recovered. You don’t have any nagging pains or concerns anymore. You’re getting anxious and excited about the next season. Now it’s time to build the foundation that your entire year is going to rest on… better make it strong and sturdy!
So this part of training is all about preparation and setting yourself up for your next round of training cycles. I try to get about 4-6 weeks of this phase under my belt before I start transitioning into full-blown training. It’s kind of a lot to do so I like to cut it up into a few steps to it to make it flow a little smoother and much easier to digest.
Take a look back and reflect on your previous year. Find out what went right and what didn’t go so well. What race went the best for you? Why was that? What part of your season didn’t go so well and what could be done to prevent it from happening again? What about injuries? How did sleep and stress play into your season or affect your training? These are just a few of the things that you can ask yourself, but be sure to explore every aspect that you can think off so you have a list of bullet points to work on or continue with in your new season.
Now look forward to the new season with all that information from last year and put together a race plan that fits to your goals, strengths and motivations. Do what makes the most sense and inspires you the most. Just because you’re better at flat running courses doesn’t mean you CAN’T challenge yourself if you’re motivated to by a classic mountain. Just realize that it means you have to adapt your training in order to prepare for something that exploits your weaknesses. This is where hiring a coach for the season will REALLY come in handy.
Strengthening your weaknesses should be your biggest focus during this training period. Address all injuries and weaknesses with some strengthening. Focus on form during your training runs. See a physical therapist if you are having reoccurring injuries or something you just can’t quite figure out yourself. Investing a little time to fill in the cracks will pay huge dividends throughout the whole season. And rushing this part of the program will only get you back to needing time off sooner and usually with an injury.
Build the machine! This is equal parts body AND engine. As endurance athletes, we spend so much time focusing on aerobic capacities during the seasons that we tend to neglect muscle strength along the way. Also, running is a one-legged sport, so balance and ancillary muscle strengthening is going to help keep you injury free through a demanding year. Spend 2-3 days in the gym building resilience and durability by lifting heavy. This is a great time to also focus on raising your VO2 max (top speed) so you have a higher ceiling to work with in terms of a lactate threshold. Again, if any of those words were confusing, a coach might come in handy here to help you know how to efficiently spend time doing both body and aerobic strengthening.
Gaining weight is fine. A stronger body is also going to be more dense, so don’t be afraid of gaining a little weight. In fact, elite trainer and coach, Dr. Krista Austin, has her Olympic medal winning endurance athletes train in the off-season with healthy weight gains as a form of hyper gravity training. Gaining weight has also been proven to improve mental health, physical recovery and sleep among endurance athletes. Giving up the stress of those strict diets and restrictions can also do a lot for the psyche… in other words, #TREAT’YO’SELF!
Off seasons are such tricky things. Most of us know how to run every day and can prepare for FKT’s or races. But rarely do we know what to do with ourselves when we don’t have training to focus on during an off-season. Each of these topics can seriously be a whole pages long discussion, but I wanted to give a broad overview of what I prefer my athletes and myself do for an off season that best prepares us for a new season of adventure and excitement.