Winter is coming… at least to the northern hemisphere. While it’s not the end of the competitive season for everyone, it is for the majority of the athletes my coaches and I work with. And that brings the inevitable discussion of what to do in the “off season”.
The first thing you need to do is banish the phrase “off-season” from your memory. Words are important because they carry meaning. Off-season implies a passive, aimless period where nothing useful happens. That is the wrong way to approach this time of year. The “transition period” (the term I prefer) has purpose, which is to recuperate from the competition or specialization period of the year and lay the groundwork for another productive training phase in the future. This phase of the year is as important as all other parts of the year. The focus is different, but the level of commitment and purpose should be unchanged.
So, if we’re assigning a purpose to this period, what is it? The purposes of the transition phase are rest, regeneration, and rejuvenation. Yes, this will mean fulfilling the purpose of this phase will mean proactively doing less. The reason I harp on this point is because it sounds simple but is actually quite difficult for many ultrarunners to accomplish. Earlier in my coaching career I was far less specific about what I expected from athletes during the transition phase, and invariably athletes continued with way more training volume and training intensity than they should have. Some would say, “What does it matter? They’re doing what they want to do and having fun running without structure.” It matters becase those runners were unprepared to return to purposeful, goal-oriented training when the time came. They hadn’t recuperated – mentally or physically – and therefore could not handle the training workload that would have resulted in greater peak fitness the following year. That’s the big takeaway here: the payoff for executing a proper transition period is the ability to shoulder a greater workload as you prepare for your next big event. If you want to exceed what you were capable of accomplishing this year, take the next 3-4 months as seriously as you did the height of your season (even though that means taking doing less more seriously).
Here are some guidelines for executing a successful transition period:
Take time away from running
Seriously, stop running. I know it’s what you love to do, but you need to stop… for a little while. I have my athletes take between two and four weeks away from running. That doesn’t mean they are totally inactive; it just means they participate in other activities. They ride bicycles, swim, rock climb, do yoga or Pilates, anything but run. I want them – and you – to explore other activities and get to the point where they crave running, not as a compulsion but rather as a desire.
Return to running slowly
After your 2- to 4-week sojourn from running, don’t jump back in full force and go right back to your normal training frequency. Return from no running to two runs per week for another 2-4 weeks. During this time, continue with the non-running activities you were doing in the earlier portion of the transition phase. This will increase your total training workload but ensure you are incorporating a variety of stimuli.
Don’t work on weaknesses
Addressing weaknesses is one of the big mistakes athletes make during the post-season transition period. Remember the purposes of the transition period are rest, regeneration, and rejuvenation. Weaknesses should be purposefully addressed during the normal progression of training. Working on your weaknesses if hard. Alter all, by definition you are not very good at them, right? If you spend this period working hard on improving your weak areas, what part of the year will you use for recuperation? Failing to recover and recuperate hurts all aspects of your training, so you have a choice: focus on rest and improve all aspects of your future training, or focus on your weaknesses and improve one small area of your training at the expense of all others.
Catch up on honey-do lists
Although we don’t readily admit it, ultrarunners are a pretty needy bunch. We need the support of family and friends in order to devote the requisite time and energy to the sport we love. The transition period is a good time to repay some of that support or bank some goodwill to offset future favors. Some of these activities are close to home, particularly in the home and in your relationships. But some of it can also be volunteer efforts with your local running club. So go paint the deck, change some of those light bulbs that have been burned out for the last 4 months and volunteer for some trail maintenance.
Have an exit strategy
Your transition period needs to have a set end date. There needs to be a hard date when you plan on returning to purposeful training, when you flip the switch back to “game on”. The timing for flipping the switch should be based on your upcoming goals; work backwards from your goal events to determine when you need to restart purposeful training. Even if your goal for next season is not entirely determined, you are better off setting a time period for when you want to achieve peak fitness and working back from there.
Only return to training if you can train with purpose
As the pre-determined date for returning to purposeful training approaches, take an honest assessment of your mental and physical status. The former is often neglected but usually more important. Are you excited about training or kind of dreading it? Are you itching to get going or stressed by how much work you have in front of you? Do you feel energetic or sluggish? In the grand scheme of things you should only restart purposeful training if your head and heart and body are “all in”. I know an athlete is ready when all they want to do is go run. If you aren’t feeling that passion for running, you’re better off taking more time off than forcing it. Yes, you might lose a week or more of potential training time, but you’ll make up for it by being more productive and passionate in the time you have.
One more thing: “Maintenance” is not a training goal. I have never, not once, had an athlete come to me with the goal of ‘maintaining’ their fitness. The goal of training is to improve performance. Again, this may be a matter of semantics, but words matter. If you are training, train with purpose and train to improve your performance. If you’re running or being active with another, non-training purpose, that’s fine, too. But be clear about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. There is nothing wrong with saying you are just running for fun or spending some time away from purposeful training to participate in other activities. But you’re either training with a specific purpose or you’re not. You’re either working with purpose or you’re not. This seemingly meaningless distinction is important because it helps athletes take a more relaxed and easy approach to their non-training activities and a more focused and purposeful approach to their actual training activities. It’s that nebulous area in the middle that’s the problem; it burns too much energy to help with recuperation, yet doesn’t provide the stimulus to improve fitness.