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The Benefits of the Off Season

And as many athletes and coaches will tell you, the off-season is as much about the mental rest as the physical.

When it comes to finishing a marathon and the days and weeks that follow, most people fall into one of two groups. There’s the group that wants to use the off-season to rest, welcomes the extra sleep, and sings hallelujah for not having to do any running for a bit. And then there’s the group that rides the high from the race and wants to get back out there and just run more.

Whether it is because the race went well and they want to maintain that momentum, or because the race went badly and they’re not about to give up, the truth is, that running early on after completing a marathon isn’t the ideal answer for anyone. In fact, we could all do well to take a bit of perspective from the “welcome the extra sleep” group and do just that: have a rest.

A marathon is incredibly taxing to the body. It causes several microtears in the muscles, and some muscle damage; there is dehydration and glycogen depletion, which affects other systems of your body, especially when sustained for an extended period of time, and with the months of mileage leading up to the race, the body is in need of a much-deserved rest. And as many athletes and coaches will tell you, it is as much for the mental rest as the physical.

Many coaches, elite marathoners and training clubs, recommend a two-week post-marathon rest period. This time involves little to no running, and then in the two weeks following, low mileage and reduced effort runs, with no workouts. But for many people, the period of low mileage needs to last longer than just the month immediately following the race.

Call it resting, the off season, or just the time between races where you have finished training for one and haven’t started training for the next, there are a lot of benefits to giving this time the dedication and commitment it deserves—not simply rushing into training for your next race or stopping running altogether.

You can think of it as the reset period. Typically occurring after a race and when you are coming off your post-marathon rest phase, the off-season presents an opportunity for you to narrow in on some areas of your running that need extra attention. It also affords the time to cement in the hard work from the previous season ahead of starting for the new season.

Long distance running has the brilliant effect of allowing for year-over-year improvement due to the fact that each year we accrue more miles in our legs, and subject the body to increased distance and more advanced workouts. At the end of each season, when those miles have been completed and the new layer of experience has been added, it’s time to start the next season by building a strong foundation on those newly-accumulated miles so that you can be strong to head into your next period of racing.

For example, with many runners having recently completed or planning to complete a fall marathon, after that initial rest period, scaling things back to lay a foundation for the start-up of spring training presents an ideal set-up for a successful off-season ahead. This is especially true if you have specific goals that require a series of dedicated months of training, building mileage and increasing intensity. During this off-season time, runners can focus on several things, many of which take a back seat during typical training:

  • Particular areas of weakness in running which may not be able to be afforded optimal time during traditional marathon training periods. For example, focusing on uphill or downhill running; practicing strides for faster leg turnover; working on your finishing kick.
  • Using targeted cross training or rehabilitation activities to focus on particular areas of weakness in the body, such as the hip flexors, glutes, core or ankle stability.
  • A mental break from being constantly concerned about running progress, and instead, focusing on running for fun.
  • Increased time available to spend on proper recovery including myofascial release, massage or chiropractic and therapy rehabilitation appointments.
  • Practicing mental training and working on improving your mindset for running. This is especially relevant if your body was physically capable in the previous season, but you missed out on your goals due to mental hurdles.
  • Assimilating lessons learned, evaluating progress towards the previous season’s goals, and setting goals for the season ahead.

While many runners may at first balk at the need for an off-season, and even more so at the need for two weeks off post-race, it, in many ways is the root and foundation of a successful season to come. Embracing the opportunities it holds and the potential it carries to be a driving force for future mileage and race success is a step even the elites don’t let pass by.