Rethinking the "Off" Season
Using winter to rebuild and become a better runner
Off-seasons are a good time to get your dog back in shape. Photo by David Roche
“Off-season" is a misnomer.
As I have outlined before, you can think of your trail-running fitness as a brick wall. Runs build up the wall, time off chips away at the bricks.
When you let a structure sit there without attention for an extended time, it breaks down. You don’t want a full-stop off-season that turns your fitness into the Parthenon, a crumbling relic of what it once was.
Instead of an "off-season," think of this time as a "rebuilding season." Here is how to do that.
A rebuilding phase is a good time to slow down and enjoy adventurous river crossings. Photo by David Roche
1. Repair the Cracks: Take a few days to a few weeks off running
Racing and hard training can cause some physical and psychological damage—think little leg injuries, lack of motivation and extreme nipple chafing. To start the rebuilding process, throw some caulk in the cracks by taking time off from pounding.
However, don’t be inactive. Focus instead on core strength, flexibility, low-heart-rate strength work and foam rolling. If you have energy to burn and are taking more than a week off, you can even do some no-impact cross training, like high-cadence cycling, low-intensity elliptical or medium-effort pole dancing. Remember, the goal is to heal, so don’t make yourself squeal (unless that’s a part of your pole-dancing routine).
If you are healthy and motivated, take just a few days in this phase.
If you race ultramarathons or have lingering injuries, take 7 to 14 days, or as long as it takes for you to feel 100 percent healthy.
If you race 100-milers, consider spending even longer in this phase. However, don’t linger once you feel healthy and motivated. Unnecessary rest can increase injury risk when you return as your body re-adapts to pounding, in addition to spurring unneeded fitness loss.
Playing in leaves is an acceptable training goal during this time. Photo by David Roche
2. Restore Your Base: Progress methodically into easy running
With the cracks shored up, you can reinforce the wall in order to build it higher than ever. After the time off, start up again at around 50 percent of your previous mileage (if you needed only a short break) or 25 percent (if you took a long break). At first, keep all the miles purely aerobic, focusing on consistency rather than epicness.
This restoration period is a good time to think about form (quick cadence, soft strides), strength (pre-run and post-run routines) and body composition. Build back your mileage over a few weeks (if you didn’t need much time off) or a bit longer (if you needed more time).
Remember, always be responsive to fluctuations in how you feel. Usually, the restoration period should feel uplifting and invigorating.
3. Build Higher: Increase aerobic volume, then add strides
You aren’t worrying about workouts, you’re healthy and you’re motivated. Now you’re ready to build to your best season ever.
The general protocol I use with my athletes is increasing aerobic workload as high as possible, balancing physical, mental and nipple health. I like these runs at upper-end aerobic zones, easy but not intentionally slow (so an effort where you could carry on a conversation, but not rap like Busta Rhymes). And we usually keep most runs on flatter, more manageable terrain, to improve the actual pace the athlete runs at the given aerobic exertion levels.
Ideally, we stay in this phase for one to two months, though longer can lead to even more breakthroughs in some cases. After you reach peak volume, start incorporating strides in your runs. In a perfect world, the rebuilding season ends with the athlete sustaining higher mileage than ever, and feeling 100 percent healthy and 110 percent happy.
After a well-executed rebuilding season, you'll be an aerobic powerhouse, ready for training breakthroughs. As you transition into the race season a few months from now, add more strides and mix in some workouts, you will see just how important that rebuilding season was.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Team Clif Bar. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David's daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.