It’s fall, and racing season is starting to wind down. What now? You’ve worked extremely hard for your fitness and don’t want to lose it, but there are no races in sight. Maybe you are a little injured, tired, or burned out. Or maybe you’re more motivated than ever!
The off season is an extremely important phase of the training cycle. We often talk about “base season” as the time to lay down a strong foundation for the coming year, but if you don’t adequately recover from the demands of training, there won’t be anything to lay the foundation on!
The off-season doesn’t necessarily mean not running - it means not racing and doing stressful race-specific workouts. It’s a time for rest, pondering, and preparing. This is the perfect time to reflect on the past season and develop a plan for the future.
Why do we need an off-season?
Going without an off-season is a little like going with too few sleep hours in your day. You might not notice at first, but if you continue to go without and race/train at peak levels month after month after month, it will eventually lead to a decrease in performance, burnout and a greater risk of frustrating injury. Just like we polarize our training week with hard days hard and easy days easy, we have to polarize our year to avoid stagnation and continue to experience training gains. Training and racing places great stresses, both healthy and unhealthy, on our bodies and minds and the off-season allows for refreshing recovery and growth.
After a rough season, an ‘off season” is highly appealing - a break really can heal all. When you have a season plagued with aches and pains or lacking performance gains, it is a sign that you were possibly pushing too hard, not recovering enough, racing too much,or had unrealistic expectations or pressure.
When you’ve had a strong season, it can be tempting to continue with that momentum. Resist the urge - if you have a season where you feel good and perform well, your training is on target. The off season allows you to honestly reflect on your performance and training, heal, recover, and then make small changes to “level up”.
How do you train during the off season? Is it a complete break?
It depends. First of all, there is nothing wrong with taking a break with no training at all! This isn’t lazy - it’s an investment into your longevity in sport . We used to recommend this to all our athletes, but over time we’ve learned that not everyone wants this - some people absolutely thrive on the routine and structure of training and go squirrely without it. You don’t need to torture yourself with a break, but don’t train because you’re compulsive, addicted, or worried about losing fitness. Keep a healthy WHY.
That said, you should definitely take a break from running if you are recovering from an injury. Dedicate time to PT, rehab exercises, and strengthening weaknesses. Focus on becoming healthy again before undertaking serious training towards a race. WIthout the pressure of imminent timelines, now is the time to level up your health!
In all cases, use this time to make training a bit more playful. If you avoid the trails during marathon training, have fun exploring them! Enter a fun run like a donut run or Halloween costume run, exercise with friends you normally wouldn’t, stay up a bit later and be a little looser in your lifestyle - the goal of the off season is to recover and return to race season fresh and fit.
The two phases of an off-season: Recovery and Building
The first step after a hard season is recovery - a down week (or 2 or 3) of training with reduced or no training. Once the body and mind are healthy, it’s time to return to regular, structured training without the pressure of close races. Just because races are far away doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. Work during the building phase of an off season create a wide base upon which you build the rest of your training over the year.
After a break, should you jump right back where you were before? No. Firstly, the whole point of an off-season is to be gentle with yourself. It’s important to ramp back up slowly to avoid injury and burnout. Second, when training for performance, it’s important to periodize your training. Periodization means doing different types of training at different times in your training cycle in order to elevate race performance. The off season is a good time to dive into training that you don’t get the chance to do regularly.
If you are a long endurance athlete - someone who focuses on the marathon, ultra, or Spartan Beast, now is a good time to do speedwork and neuromuscular training while you aren’t as fatigued from heavy mileage.
If you are a shorter endurance athlete or newer athlete, now is the time to lay down a large base of mileage and basic endurance work.
Regardless of the type of athlete you are, this is an excellent time for strength and mobility work, if this is a gap of yours.
What if you lose hard-earned fitness? You probably will ! And that’s OK! It’s very healthy for your body to become a little bit deconditioned rather than maintaining peak fitness year round - this is hard on your nervous system. Becoming deconditioned and then building back stronger is an important part of the process of becoming fitter. Increasing fitness isn't linear, rather, there are (ideally, deliberate) peaks and valleys. Think of purposeful deconditioning as step backward to take a step forward. This can be a bit unnerving if you are a future-focused athlete. Take this opportunity to practice staying in the day and trusting the process. Each week during the building phase you will become faster and faster, and that is really exciting!
What if you just race for fun?
You want to keep racing fun! If your goals aren’t all about performance, you may need less time off, but I still encourage you to take a moment, rejuvenate, and ponder your goals for the upcoming season. If racing or training is a social activity for you, meet up with your community online or in person and do something else fun like a trail run or paint night.
The off season provides a unique opportunity for growth, and is something that all elite and Olympic-level athletes strongly embrace (!). Embrace the rest, and come back stronger!