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Why Off-Seasons Are Necessary For Runner Recovery

Mackenzie L. Havey /

“Winter Is A Season Of Recovery And Preparation”

While endurance training likely wasn’t at the top of novelist Paul Theroux’s mind when he wrote these words, they certainly apply to runners of every stripe. Winter is often a time to recover from the previous season and prepare for the next. This time of rest, renewal and planning for the future is referred to as the off-season.

Of course this season doesn’t have to necessarily occur in the winter months, but that’s the way it works out for many athletes. Whether you’ve just spent eight weeks preparing for a 5K or the entire summer gearing up for a fall marathon, the off-season plays a key role in ensuring the health and success of subsequent seasons.

Gloria Petruzzelli, a clinical sports psychologist and runner, explains that even the top elites take time away from training each year, expecting and accepting that they won’t be in peak shape year-round.

“Our bodies and minds were made for homeostasis—constantly being ‘on’ leads to increased stress, which is the main contributor to mental and physical burnout and, more specifically, injury,” she explains. “Taking an off-season helps to manage stress and prevent a cascade of other issues that could negatively impact your life and can also be a productive time to reevaluate what went well over the past season and what areas you might improve upon to reach future goals.”

Related: Why Some Time Off From Training Is A Good Thing

Reasons To Take An Off-Season

1. Physical Recovery

In the same way we can’t live in a perpetual state of summer, you can’t train full-bore 365 days a year. “Your fitness should come in waves with lulls of recovery that allow your body and mind to heal from training,” advises Steve Gonser, a physical therapist and founder of the RunSmart Online customizable training programs.

Regular training involves a certain amount of wear and tear on your body. Your muscles break down, bone strength is tested, stress hormones surge—all of which are good things in small doses. When you don’t allow for the necessary physiological repair and recovery to occur via time off, you risk injury and overtraining.

“The body is an organic being, not a machine,” adds Nikki Rafie, a coach and two-time Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier. “The off-season can be a time to rejuvenate and regroup to better position athletes to go after their next goal after their body gets a chance to heal and the nervous system can relax.”

Related: The Dos And Don’ts Of Cross-Training For Runners

2. Mental Renewal

No matter what you’re training for, running requires self-discipline and focus. Over time and training, you expend a considerable amount of mental energy in an effort to keep your eye on the prize. The off-season is a crucial time to dial back that mental intensity or allocate resources to other endeavors. This is especially important to avoid burnout, which is caused by prolonged periods of stressing your body and mind.

“Burnout is associated with higher injury risk and higher stress levels,” says Petruzzelli. “Taking an off-season can help prevent or mediate the risk of burnout if you do it right.”

A loss of motivation or interest in training can also signal impending burnout. As Gonser says, “The off-season is especially important mentally when training starts to feel like a chore.”

3. Life Catch-Up

There’s no getting around the fact that training can take time away from other things in your life. When you’re in the thick of it, you may find yourself shelving home-improvement projects, spending less time with your family and putting work assignments on the back burner. The off-season is the perfect time to rebalance your life.

“Time away from running allows an athlete to be more purposeful and mindful of other aspects of their lives,” Rafie says. “Fill the training time slots with fun activities with friends and family, go for a hike, take a well-deserved vacation.”

4. Fresh Goal Setting

It can be difficult to gain perspective on the larger landscape of your running career when you’re in the midst of training for a specific race. The off-season presents the perfect opportunity to do so.

“It’s a time when an athlete can reevaluate the past season, assess what went well and where they can improve to achieve future goals,” explains Petruzzelli. “Establishing a new ‘carrot on the stick’ is a fun way to increase motivation.”

Off-Season Basics

So what exactly should your off-season look like? It depends. In the same way that you might tailor your training or nutrition strategy to your individual needs, so should you with your off-season plan. This can vary based on everything from the intensity and length of your previous training cycle to your injury status and other life circumstances. The following are a few of the basic tenets of a productive off-season.

Fight The Urge To Keep Training

Whether you nailed your season goals or fell short, stepping away from your running routine can be one of the most challenging aspects of training. Developing a plan ahead of time is vital to help you avoid the pull to continue running when your body and mind are clamoring for a break.

“Smart athletes have a training plan that will have built-in recovery or active recovery time, as well as a yearly plan that will have an off-season built in,” Petruzzelli says.

And if that doesn’t work, she suggests having a fail-safe in the form of a healthy support system. “Be sure to have people in your life who will hold you accountable,” she added, “someone who will give you honest feedback regarding unhealthy training patterns and will be able to tell you, ‘Look, you need time off to recover.’”

Related: 12 Strength-Training Moves For Runners

Take At Least A Little Time Away From Running

Every runner is an experiment of one. While some of us can’t wait to get off the daily run train, others struggle to break their routine. One universal rule, though, is to lay off the miles for at least a short period.

“The amount of time you should take off will depend on the volume and intensity of the training cycle, as well as the mindset of the athlete and age,” Rafie says. “You definitely should avoid doing any races and hard workouts in the off-season.”

While there’s no one-size-fits-all off-season, Rafie generally advises marathoners and ultrarunners to take two weeks completely off of running but to stay active doing other low-intensity activities. After that, she suggests doing another several weeks of light running before jumping back into any organized training.

For those who have just completed shorter races, say a 5K, the total time devoted to the off-season might be the same, but you may choose to return to easy running after only a week away. The key is to take at least a little time off—more if you’re burned out or injured—and then return to easy running without the pressure of tough workouts and races on your immediate agenda.

Keep Moving

By continuing to do some form of exercise in the off-season, you prevent a drastic loss of fitness. Gonser urges most runners to continue doing at least some running after taking a short amount of time off. “To me, the off-season is when you run for yourself without the pressure to perform or the lurking obligation that accompanies a training schedule,” he says. “Continuing to do some easy running helps your body stay accustomed to the demands of running, and it prevents you from having to start from scratch next season.”

Petruzzelli says that while some athletes might feel a need to completely disconnect from running, which is perfectly acceptable, it’s important to stay active year-round. “The off-season is a good time to engage in some other activities like yoga, rock climbing, trail running, cycling or swimming—or you can create a strength and conditioning plan to start a healthy build toward the next season,” she says. “This is where ‘know thyself’ as an athlete comes in. It’s important to know how you can best set yourself up for a good next season.”

Related:

A Runner’s Argument In Favor Of The Off-Season

7 Things Every Runner Should Do During The Off-Season

Follow These 9 Rules To Make The Most Of Your Off-Season