04 October 2012

The "Off Season" for a Runner

Each week I send a group email out to the athletes I coach covering various topics on running and training.  This is a rather bloated one, so I sent it to a few more people and I'm putting it up here for the other three people who visit this site.

When is it time to take a short break from running and racing?

Hi Folks,

Usually, this weekly email is for the athletes I coach.  With my favorite holiday approaching (Halloween), I feel a wave of generosity and thought I'd include others into our little weekly Coach's Corner (aren't you lucky!).  It's a bit meandering and lacks literary cohesion, but hopefully gets the point across.  For my athletes, we will be discussing, and incorporating, time off into your schedules.  Look at it like the "reset" week we now enjoy every fifth week of your training, only on a larger, annual scale...

Oh, and don't forget to register for the next running clinics!  Lucho will be there at them with me with more wildly entertaining stories.  You'll be sad you missed them  Running Clinics

Taking a break.  As runners we are all, at varied levels, OCD about our activity. Some are so “controlled” by running that they run when they're sick, injured, and beyond overtrained (guilty!). Most of them even race all-year-long. The benefits of time off are substantial and often overlooked by many runners.

When I talk about time off I'm not referring to a day off here and there (though those are important as well). I'm talking about a full cycle of your training taken off, or four to five weeks. I'll pause here to allow you to catch your breath from the gasp of astonishment.

After years of doing this stuff (competitive cycling and running), I've tried many variations of “taking a break”. Lucho (those of you coming to the Eat to Win and the Hill Running clinics in a couple weeks will get to meet Lucho) and I spoke this morning about the need to take time off. He solidified my feelings on it that the mental benefits are the most important part of time away from running and racing.

The extremes. During and after college I raced road bikes and it was my life. 300-400 mile weeks would slip by in the form of Tuesday sprints, Thursday intervals, weekend long rides, and miles and miles of flat farmland vistas on the other days. By the time September would roll around I was drained. Physically, I was a monster on the bike by then but mentally I was a 90 lbs weakling and the thought of hard training was like torture when, just 4 months previous, I dreamed about riding every second I wasn't in the saddle. Some years I would train on the icy roads in Michigan all winter. Most years I'd go into hibernation and pack on 15-20 lbs, then emerge in April and swing my fat leg over the saddle and curse the pain for a couple weeks. But loved cycling more than the previous year, which I thought impossible because I loved it more than a fresh NYC bagel (almost).

Not much has changed over the years. Here I sit coming off a lackluster 50k on the last day of September and I'm, well, drained. Physically, I have a deep base of fitness, though I feel stale. And I feel like I'm on the verge of tweaking something in my body with little twinges of slight pain in my muscles and tissue saying, “Hey, I'll snap like a rubber band powered balsa wood airplane if you don't give us a break.” Mentally, running is becoming a chore, like laundry. Unfortunately, unless you are rich enough to keep buying and throwing clothes away, there are no breaks in doing laundry. Running, on the other hand, can (and should be) shelved for a period of time.

So far this year I've raced 632 miles and paced another 90+ miles (Western States and Leadville). By the end of the year (next weekend) I'll have raced 682 miles (782 if counting the pacing). That's the equivalent of 257 5ks... in 9 months. Am I tired of racing? YES. Sick of it, frankly. Am I tired of running? I have to admit I am. The thought of running is appealing but the actual process of it is what I dread.

Lucho feels that it's best to not set a time frame when taking a break. That makes perfect sense. Why stress yourself with a deadline of returning to the thing you're trying to get away from? I like to have something to look forward to, so I usually set a date that I'll go out for a walk/run to evaluate how I feel. Usually four to five weeks (one full cycle of training for me) off is plenty and I'm raging to get back at it. The fitness lost is difficult to deal with at first. 4 mile runs are humbling. But they are exhilarating at the same time. The freshness and eagerness fills the void of lowered aerobic fitness. It's like a new sport all over again. And the fitness returns as you progress into the training. Of course, take your time and don't rush anything. Don't rush the miles. Don't rush the speed. Don't rush the process. The aerobic base is the foundation that you have to meticulously and methodically build. Lots of slow, s-l-o-w running with the only focus being on the enjoyment of the time on your feet.

The time away from running doesn't have to be a pizza, beer, and sofa filled hazy dreamscape. I plan to climb onto my old friend (Not her. She changed her phone number and filed a restraining order for some reason). I'm referring to the bike. Total inactivity is fine. I've done it before during these breaks and lived to talk about it. But, if you have a secondary sport or activity you like or want to try, then why not? The benefit, aside from the obvious one of being fun, is that you'll retain a level of fitness while getting the required mental re-set.  Lucho flip-flopped his MONSTER training last winter between cycling and running in preparation for Leadman. It kept him motivated, fresh, injury free, and well-rounded in terms of overall fitness. He didn't realize he was sick of training until around mile 50 of the Leadville 100 run and his break from running started one second after he crossed the finish line.

So, after Firetrails 50 miler next week, unless something snaps in me and gives me another shot of motivation, I'll be storing my beloved La Sportivas for a while (just a short break). I suggest you do the same at some point. Running isn't like football (thank God); we don't really have a set “off season”. We need to have the self awareness and commitment to assign ourselves an off season. Good luck with yours.



  1. I knew reading your blog would pay off sooner or later! Thanks for the free coaching on time off, well put. And I agree that getting on the bike is definitely the 2nd best way to spend a break from running.

  2. Rick- The first best being drinking beer!? :)

  3. I can think of 1 thing better than drinking beer ;-)!

  4. Great points, I feel the same way some days, take a day or two off, then I am climbing the walls to get out and run. Then again, I don't put in nearly the training volume as you and many others (nor the racing miles), so I guess it is easier to be fresh when you don't do much. Plus, it is a great little escape from daily responsibilities.

  5. Thanks for sharing this.

    Thoughts on the masters (and older) folks taking such big periods off? It seems to be less and less so as one gets older (*although the intensity seems to blend over the year too*)

  6. Tim thanks for sharing your thought on this. Although it's an injury that "forces" me into a recovery period (in this cast the past 4 weeks), it's reassuring to hear that this down time is really what my body needs. Without any races in the immediate future, I'll gladly sacrifice some fitness in exchange for feeling energetic and mentally sharp once again.

    Yeah, I get a bit crabby at work when I fall out of my daily running routine, but if it means longevity in the sport, I'll take it.

  7. GZ, that's a good question on whether there's a difference based on age. I think it depends on a lot of factors. Goals, distances, a feeling of "I'm getting older and can't waste a month of not running", personality, outside life influences like family and work, acceptance that one isn't as fast as before so why bother specificity training, and balance in life where running is either a piece of one's life or a major part of it. Those are just a few.

    I like to talk from personal experience and observation of others. So, let's compare you and me. I hope none of this is offending. You seem to run like you brush your teeth with an internal force pushing you to get it in every day. If you happen to miss a day, the tone in your blog post about that day is a negative one, like you failed for that day. The running you've moved to seems to be more blended and narrow (same distance, same terrain, same pace roughly). Fitting that into your day becomes easier than diverse or goal oriented training. Somewhat of a side note: I've wondered whether you race less because you are a fast(er) runner and are avoiding (not necessarily consciously) competing at shorter distances because you'd have to accept the slowing of age. It's more poignant for someone like you who's run and raced since a much younger age, so the disparity between your racing times in your 20s and now are more distinct. I didn't start running and racing until I was 34. Like I said, that's a side note but also could be a cause of your current style of year-long, linear path running.

    My running revolves around racing and competition, so I have to "peak" several times a year. Sometimes it works and other times falls short. One thing for sure is that I can't maintain that type of running for long periods. It's mentally stressful and (as we age) it takes its toll on my body. By the end of the season (which I'm on the verge of now), I'm almost sick of running and literally have to force myself to get out the door. I've always been driven by races both in cycling and running. Without them I'd probably just jog for 4-6 miles a day with no real passion or interest (like brushing my teeth). Heck, I might not even run at all if it weren't for races.

    So, I'm not sure I addressed your specific question about masters runners having different needs in terms of time off. Like much of running, it's individual. I incorporate breaks into my athletes schedules (weekly, monthly, annually) because they're looking for direction and improvement. Running well (especially in ultra distances) is a tightrope of physical preparation and mental freshness and eagerness.

  8. couldn't agree with you more. Time off is time well spent, best when it's guilt free. thanks for the post.