When I started running, I ran three seasons: cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track. For much of the year, one season bled into another. Outdoor started as soon as indoor ended, and cross country ended after indoor started. I remember trying to convince our coach to let us take a week off, but we never did. We kept running, from August to the beginning of June. Sure there were periods of higher intensity, higher volume miles, but time off didn’t really exist.
Often times I’ll hear someone speaking of burn out. Of pushing too hard for too long and not being able to go any more. (Geoff Roes is a perfect example.) Most of the time, for the purely recreational runner, true burn out isn’t something we’re faced with, but there will be races that we fail miserably. We’ll look back at the miles we’ve put up for a year or two, the miles and hours we’ve logged and we won’t be able to figure out what the hiccup is about, and more often than not, we can’t figure it out.
The difference: The Off-Season. In high school and college, there is a sort of built in off-season. When outdoor track was over, school was essentially over and the summer began. We were supposed to run, and we did from time to time, but it came in floes, and more often than not, our attentions were turned to other thigns: frisbee, soccer, hiking, camping. What we didn’t realize at that time was that the summer provided a much needed off-season. It was a time when our bodies could take a break from the grinding workouts. Our muscles could relax and do something different. Even our minds needed it.
Unfortunately, as an adult, the world is a little different. There is no built in off-season to go relax and play frisbee for three hours with your friends, or take a week and go hike a bunch of mountains. Life brings with it many obligations, and it seems like many runners forget about the obligation to themselves to take time away. We go from one race to the next, one plan to the next. Fall races lead into a Christmas or New Years races, and before we know it we’re training for our first spring race.
It’s also important to understand that “off-season” doesn’t simply mean “go sit on your couch, eat cheese balls, drink beer, and watch the game on the TV.” That would be detrimental. Instead use the off-season to work on different aspects of your running. Cut down on volume, and lower the intensity of your workouts. Do 75% of your miles slower than your easy pace. Go out of your way not to push. Keep your muscles loose and in shape, but don’t kill them, let them recover. Do some form drills, do some mini-circuits. But force yourself to go easy.
Every runner needs an off-season. Some more frequently than others, but the key to a long and healthy running career is in those easy off-season miles. I promise.