Runners: Why You Need an Off-Season, and How to Approach it

In the northeast, fall races tend to mark the culmination of a long training cycle.  It’s often not long before you start thinking about what’s next on your race calendar.  Maybe it’s another bucket list race, or a goal to better your time in your favorite race.  Planning your next race schedule is motivating, but don’t rush back to full force training just yet.  Taking a true off-season will only help you to be faster and more resilient to injury in the season to come. 

What is the off-season?  This is a time to take a mental and physical break from the rigors of race training and preparation.  It can be any time of the year, depending on when your chosen races are on the calendar.  And just to be clear, you can still be running in the off-season!  It’s just a time to scale back and take a break from racing or doing specific run workouts.

What can you do during this time to best prepare for another great season of racing?

Start with Some Rest

Give your body some time to rest and recover after your last big race. If it was a marathon or a middle to long distance triathlon, you definitely need a week or two to let your body heal.  You want to go into the off-season fresh and recovered from any aches and pains you may have developed.  This doesn’t mean just sit on the couch and eat potato chips.  Keep moving, but do something different and keep the intensity low.  Walking, yoga, pilates.  Get a massage or recovery session with a PT.  Foam roll and work on mobility.

Address Injuries

If you had an injury, now is the time to address the WHY, so that it doesn’t happen again next season.  Rest will make you feel better, but it won’t ensure that the injury isn’t going to come back when you start ramping up your training again.  Get evaluated by a physical therapist to figure out if there are any mobility, stability, strength or gait issues that may have led to the injury.  Work on these things in the off season for a healthier in-season!

Work on your Run Form

This is a great time to work on your run form.  A gait analysis will identify things that can make you more efficient and less prone to injury.  Gait improvements don’t happen overnight, nor should they.  It takes time and practice to make lasting changes safely.  The off-season is a great time for this!

Strength Train

Runners should be strength training year-round; however, in-season and off-season strengthening looks different.  The off-season is when we should be hitting the heavier weights, with the goal of making strength gains.  You need to load your muscles to get stronger – body weight is not enough.  Think 2-3 sets of 5-7 reps at 80-85% you 1 rep max. You should strength train 2x/week.  You don’t have to worry so much about being sore for your next training run, because your off-season runs are not workouts and should be relaxed and easy.  Which brings us to the next point…

Build your Base

This is the time to focus on your aerobic base.  For any structure to hold and stand strong, it must have a strong stable foundation.  Your base training gives you that good aerobic foundation to build upon when you start your race training.  Without this solid foundation, you run the risk of plateauing, or worse, injuring yourself.

This is the period where you build an efficient aerobic system – this is the system that uses oxygen to produce energy.  It is important to establish your aerobic fitness before starting anaerobic workouts like threshold runs, hills or speed intervals.  You will be able to handle these more intense workouts better, and your heart won’t work as hard at a given pace.

These runs are not race specific workouts.  They should be conversational and feel comfortable.  Forget about pace, run for time/duration instead.  After a few weeks you will find that these “easy” runs start to get faster at the same perceived effort!

Cross Train

Running is a very repetitive sport, so it’s good for the body to do something different and move in different ways.  This can be anything you enjoy!  Cycling, yoga, Pilates, swimming, hiit classes, dance classes.  Not only does this challenge your body in a different way, but also gives you a physical and mental break from running.

How long should your off-season be?  The length of time depends on your fitness level, experience, and race goals.  Anywhere from six to twelve weeks of aerobic base training is ideal before initiating race specific training.  

The off-season is not merely a hiatus; it’s a deliberate investment in long-term performance and injury prevention.  So, embrace this intentional change in routine, address the needs of your body, and watch how it propels you towards greater achievements in the season to come! 

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