The Off Season

November 25, 2021

Chaski Coach Emily Schimtz specializes on trail, ultra-trail, and mountain running. Also, she's into altitude adaptation, yoga (for inflexible people and runners), photography, 6 years experience working with a small NGO in South America. In this blog, she shares her insight when it comes to off season for runners. Check out her tips on how runners can cope up the off-season while waiting for the next perfect race!

The air is crisp and cool. You have been anxiously awaiting this day for months. The humidity has finally evaporated out of the air, and the temperature hovers around that perfect spot--you feel neither cold nor hot.

You know the feeling. All of those summer runs in heat and humidity are about to play to your favor. You lace up your shoes. It is race day. You feel fit. But behind your excitement you sense something bittersweet. It is the last race of your running season.

If you are like most runners, you will celebrate your finish line victory and bask in post-race glow. And then, at some point, you will realize your race calendar is empty until next Spring.

And like that, your post-race endorphins will clear out, leaving you with only the hazy, confused reality that you are entering no-man’s land. You are entering the “off-season”.

We hear this phrase tossed around coaching and athlete circles all the time. As a long-practicing athlete myself, I’ve received a lot of advice about how to tackle this uncertain time period, some of it useful, some questionable, and some just outright unadvisable.

I’ve heard everything from “gain ten pounds” and “drink that wine” to “just do a lotta strength work”. While everyone’s off-season looks different, I’ve outlined a few of the most common doubts that have probably crossed your mind at some point, in hopes of clearing up the doubts, myths, and outright bad advice you may have received over the years when entering this annual transition.

If there are no exact guidelines, how do I determine what is best for me?

Coaching is fun because, while you can find endless information and studies to guide your decisions, endless variables exist. There is no right answer and no two running plans will ever look the same. Even if you followed someone else’s plan exactly, you would still end up with completely different results. So, how do you even know what to do?

A good place to start is by taking stock of your current situation. Reflect on how you have felt not only lately, but over the course of the past few months. Now take it back not only to the past calendar year, but over the course of a few years.

Have you been nursing niggles and injuries? How is your motivation? What were your main goals this past year? Where do you want to go from here? Where do you want to be in 3 or 4 years from now? What do you need to do to get there? If your long term goal is to run a 100 mile trail race, maybe you first want to run a 50 miler. And maybe in order to run a 50 mile trail race, you first need to work on that funky niggle that you sometimes get after long runs. Take the time during this phase of your running to solidify goals and create a path that works for you. Your goals should include not only A-race goals, but daily and weekly practices that you want to incorporate into your running on a regular basis that always seem to get forgotten.

Should I take time off completely?

Your end-of-year break creates time for your body and mind to rest. As runners, so much of our training is focused on our physical body: fitness, aerobic capacity, muscular strength, etc. Not only do we often forget to train our minds, we also forget that our minds need a break from running as well.

Running burnout can be both physical or emotional--more often than not it is a mix of the two. If you have been training consistently throughout the past year, your body (and mind) will thank you for taking some down time--the specific amount of time depends on you, your goals, and your individual process. You might want to take a shorter break with a significant reduction (or complete reduction) of running.

You might want to extend your break, but reduce your volume and running intensity less dramatically. Or you might want to coordinate your break with a vacation, holiday, or cold, wintery weather. Either way, taking a significant break--be it just a few weeks, or even a few months--will help your muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints repair themselves from the repetitive impact of running.

At the end of a break, ask yourself: Am I excited to start my training again? Did that one niggle that was always in the back of my mind go away? If you hesitate before answering, you might want to extend your break until you feel ready to take on the demands of training again.

If I take time off, won’t I just lose all my fitness?

Let’s be honest. Most runners have a warped sense of time. If you do track workouts you probably think that 400 meter loops around the track are eternal, while running a full marathon isn’t quite long enough. You may have even reflected on how out of shape you feel after a rest day, convincing yourself that you must have lost at least some of your fitness in the past 24 hours (trust me, you haven’t).

The reality of the off-season is that you probably will lose fitness a lot slower than you think you will, and gain it back faster than you expect it to, especially if you have been training consistently.

The concept of fitness itself isn’t black and white either. What we often think of as fitness is really a combination of a few different factors: aerobic fitness, or endurance, and structural fitness, the ability of your tendons, ligaments, bones and muscles to withstand the impact of running.

I will even argue that there is a third factor that contributes to fitness and which can be categorized as mental or psychological fitness--the ability to be emotionally and mentally ready to train and race hard. All of these factors combine to create what we consider to be our fitness.

Each of them are lost (and gained) at different rates, and they will fluctuate throughout the year. The good news is that you tend to lose the most current fitness gains the fastest, while retaining what you have worked on over the course of years for much longer.

This essentially means that taking down time periodically--after a race, on rest days and in this case, as part of your scheduled off season--will extend your overall longevity in the sport.

And extending your longevity will make transitioning between resting and running a lot smoother. The truth of the matter is that no one, not even professional athletes, can be race-ready 365 days of the year. They would simply burn out.

I’m ready for the off-season! Does this mean I can do anything I want?

While I cannot tell you what I think you should or should not do, I can tell you that if you take a three-month complete hiatus from training, revert to your old college days, pull all nighters, forget to drink water, stop cooking healthy meals, and see if you can get yourself through the entirety of Netflix without leaving the couch, when you do return to training again after your very spectacular break, you will find the transition much more painful.

While taking a running break may involve some bouts of couch-lounging, you can actually take advantage of your new found free time and use it in your favor. While you can’t play catch-up on all those core workouts, physical therapy exercises and yoga sessions that you skipped over the past year, you can take this time to start integrating these practices into your training routine and start new habits that you can take with you into your next training cycle.

Great. So, should I cross train?

Cross training can be incredibly useful during an off-season if used reasonably. As runners who train consistently throughout the year, our bodies grow accustomed to long hours of physical activity. We have the tendency to gravitate toward replacing long runs and interval sessions with extensive cross training (elliptical ultra, anyone?).

Many cross training activities are low impact, but shouldn’t be confused with zero stress. You may have heard the phrase “stress is stress”, meaning that stress--from running, lifting weights, swimming, biking, or even work--is stress, and your body doesn’t know the difference. If you are trying to remove stress after a long training season so that you can fully recover, replacing long runs with long sessions at the gym will not do this. You cannot trick your body.

As you get back into training, however, cross training can be a great training tool. Not only will you work different muscle groups, you will go through the process of learning a new activity.

Have you ever watched a brand new runner start a training program? Just by running a few times per week their improvement skyrockets. As practiced athletes, I think we underestimate the value of being a beginner again, trying out something with which we are uncomfortable, awkward or unfamiliar.

You might also find your off-season to be a good time to start a new strength program. With less structured workouts and races on the calendar, you will probably find yourself with more time and energy. Take this time to integrate new practices into your training, do them consistently, and make them a habit that you can take with you throughout the year.

Whatever you do as an athlete this off-season, take the time to think about what you need to continue running long-term and how you can create the conditions to do so. This might be the only time during the year when you have time to slow down, take a step back, and hit the reset button.

— Emily Schmitz

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