As runners, we’ve heard the term “off season” but do we really know why we need it and how long this nebulous off season should be? I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I am in my own personal off season. I’m not training for anything right now. I had a baby, came back and trained for the New York Marathon for four months, took about a month away from serious training and then jumped right into a really, really demanding training schedule for the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon. Not only was this training cycle demanding on my body, but it was also demanding on my mind and on my family, as they, too, made sacrifices so that I could show up to race day at what I believed was my peak fitness.
What is an Off Season?
An off season is a period of complete rest and time away from your sport, typically following a demanding training and racing cycle. An off season is the perfect time to go on vacation, catch up on projects or errands that you have been putting off, spend more time with family and friends, stop worrying about your diet (and even gain a few pounds), and get more sleep. There is absolutely no structure to your workouts during an off season and may even include period of absolutely no working out at all.
Who Should Take an Off Season?
All elite athletes take time off between racing and competing. If they didn’t, they’d get injured. You simply can’t be in peak form at all times and in order to achieve your highest level of fitness, you require rest. This means rest throughout the week (in the form of rest or cross training) AND throughout your season.
Professional runners typically have at least one off-season per year. DeeDee Trotter (2012 Olympic 400m Bronze Medalist and 4 x 400m Gold Medalist) takes six to eight weeks completely off (source). Lauren Fleshman advises on her blog “Ask Lauren Fleshman” that EVERYONE, elite or not, take an off season. She writes, “Structure your break around what you think you need. Will you get out of shape? Yep. Will you gain a few pounds? Probably. But you will replenish those deep stores of vitamins and minerals, your structures will rebuild, and your hormones will find their equilibrium.” Dr. Doug Graham, who coaches elite track and field athletes and who founded FoodnSport (source), echoes this advice: “If you train year-round in your sport, you don’t do as well as if you take two to six weeks off.”
While you may pride yourself in doing a 365 day “run streak,” from my research, most professional runners take at least 1-2 weeks COMPLETELY away from running per year. NO running. Not easy runs. Nothing. None! We tend to think that we have to constantly be pushing ourselves farther or at the very least “maintaining” our fitness, but the truth is, we get stronger in the long run if we take an off season.
What Happens to Your Body During an Off Season
Let’s get the bad news out of the way. You will lose some fitness at first. Your 5K time can get up to a minute slower with just 3 weeks away from running! V02 Max decreases within 1 week away.
However, some good things happen:
- Your muscles, tendons and bones get some time to heal. Your body repairs those nicks and dents that have occurred during months of hard training, which safeguards you against major injuries.
- You’ll restore your enthusiasm for running and increase your desire to train (risk mental burnout without an off season).
- Your endocrine system will get the break it needs. This system supplies all the necessary hormones for training and repair.
The lesson here is simple: Don’t let the fear of short-term performance losses hinder your long term performance gains!
My Off-Season Mistakes
Well, after doing this research, I realized I didn’t QUITE do my off season well. I returned to running a little too soon (I ran 8 miles on the Saturday one week after the race because I was lured to my group run with the promise of a post run potluck). I also did a group speed workout 1.5 weeks after the race. I didn’t take enough time completely off of running. Since the race, 7 weeks ago, I have done only 3 speed workouts, but I also raced (and PRed – woohoo!) at 10K. I probably should have taken at least three weeks completely away from speed work and then returned with very short intervals only.
The mistake I made was assuming that training would make me stronger, rather than recognizing that rest was what I needed to get stronger in the long run. I was afraid of losing all the fitness I gained while training for the marathon.
Despite my physical missteps, mentally the last 7 weeks have been a great off-season for me. I have been able to re-charge, reflect on my race, and move forward. I also achieved the off-season standard of weight gain and have added 5 pounds to my frame thanks to plenty of parties, two vacations and quite a bit of social drinking. Totally fine and ask expected! I started a new workout program yesterday that I’m really excited about which will keep me motivated to get stronger as I get ready to start training for a fall half marathon.
Starting yesterday, I’m committing to four runs per week, including a long run of at least 10 miles. Running is all about cycles and I’m ready to start a whole new cycle again!
What do you usually do during the off season? Do you ever intentionally take a full week or two off of running?