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Think Like A Pro During The Off Season

The elites know that maintaining a balance of training and recovery is important to staying mentally and physically healthy.

Any competitive runner can tell you a time where they’ve had the itch to lace up and race again after a poor performance; a need for redemption that starts as soon as you cross the finish line and realize it wasn’t your day.

This is how Allie Ostrander of Boise State felt after the cross country season, knowing she was not able to put together her ideal race at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. “I would be lying if I said that I was completely satisfied with the result,” said Ostrander. “I felt as though I did not race to the fitness level that I have been demonstrating in workouts, but that is part of running. Not every race will be perfect, and a disappointing result is something that I can use as motivation moving forward.”

So on December 1, just two weeks after a brutally-cold NCAA Cross Country Championships in Wisconsin, her and many other Division I and III runners toed the line to cap off their fall racing circuit on the indoor track. While a break was long overdue for most after a summer of building mileage and an intense championship season, many top tier runners still headed straight for the 200m track to make the most of their peak fitness and attempt an NCAA Indoor Championships qualifying time.

Ostrander, who hadn’t gained a personal record in the 5K in three years, blazed to a time of 15:16.38 at Boston University, putting her just two seconds behind Ednah Kurgat of New Mexico’s leading time.

Think Like A Pro

So why does that matter if she chose to run at Boston instead of sitting at home and allowing her body to rest? For top tier NCAA runners, racing at the Division I level is essentially a stepping stone to becoming a professional athlete. Collegiate racing provides endless opportunities to showcase one’s talents and make an impression on professional track clubs.

Ostrander, who will have many opportunities to become a professional runner in the future, knew she wasn’t satisfied with her NCAA Cross Country Championships race. A stacked field in the women’s 5K at Boston would give her the opportunity to showcase her talents and race among the best collegiate runners in the country.

After a poor performance, a professional runner’s next step can go one of two ways. They either jump straight back into racing (think Northern Arizona Elite’s Stephanie Bruce racing the California International Marathon just four weeks after the New York Marathon) or they take a break to let their bodies heal and start building mileage when they feel they’re ready. Either option can be beneficial, both mentally and physically. Ostrander happened to be healthy and ready to race again.

With only two weeks between the end of cross country season and indoors, it could be argued that giving yourself time to mentally and physically prepare is more beneficial than jumping into a new season.

However, racing after cross country ends is a common choice for many collegiate runners for a few different reasons. For one, everyone is still in great shape if they’re not injured, which gives them a better chance of qualifying for NCAA Indoor Track Nationals in March. “It is often overlooked how short the indoor season is,” said NCAA individual qualifier Cody Chadwick of Division III UW Oshkosh. “I literally only had two or three chances by the time I came back from minor injuries last season to qualify for the conference championships.”

Coming off of a running break and getting back into the swing of training (typically in frigid conditions) is tough on the body and an adjustment period is needed. It also takes time for the legs to adjust to running on a 200m track, which is notoriously hard on one’s shins and feet.

“This approach isn’t for everyone and we choose to do it on a case-by-case basis,” says New Mexico Coach James Butler. “If an athlete is fatigued or fighting off an injury at the end of cross country, then we end their training then. If they are healthy, fit and feel fresh, it’s a great way to qualify early, take a break and build back up slowly knowing they don’t have to be at their best again until March.”

Some programs choose not to emphasize a race heavy indoor season due to a long outdoor season approaching, and the strain a 200m indoor track can put on one’s body. Lauren LaRocco of Portland, a program that does not emphasize indoor track, didn’t do any track workouts in those two weeks after the NCAA Cross Country Championships and managed to pull off a 5K personal record in Boston. “Indoor for me is just seeing how I can race off of mileage and base training,” said Larocco. “It is fun to use races as workouts and travel with the team.”

It’s important to note that whether or not these athletes race indoors right after cross country ends, just about every coach is going to have them take a break before building mileage again. Recovery is an essential part of development process for distance runners. “Everyone takes 1-3 weeks of recovery after their last race of the season,” said Portland Coach Ian Solof.  “Lauren LaRocco and Taryn Rawlings took their breaks right after Boston instead of NCAA [Cross Country Championships]. And they actually had a mini-break right after NCAAs, which consisted of 2-3 easy off days.”

Finding Your Own Personal Indoor Season

How does this applies to you and your own running? What insight can you gain from college athletes racing in events you’ll never participate in? At our core, we’re all runners—whether we’re working on a PB in the 5K or running our sixth marathon—our love of the sport is what fuels us.

But knowing your own abilities and when to push harder or take a couple of weeks off is essential to becoming a forever runner. Here are some ways to find your own personal indoor season this winter:

Listen to your body – You may not be jumping from cross country to indoor track, but going from fall marathon season to winter running can be difficult. If you’re like us, you’ve been running all year, and as it comes to an end, finding the motivation to keep going (especially in the cold) or allowing yourself a much-needed respite, is key. If your body is telling you it needs rest, give it rest.

Sign up for a race – On the other hand, if sitting idle during the winter isn’t your cup of tea, challenge yourself with a winter race and aim for a PR. Use this time to work harder than you have all year and follow the lead of college athletes who go from the grass to the track within days.

Take a break while not resting – Consider doing a combination of the above. Running alone is never the only answer to improving your fitness and performance. Instead of keeping your mileage up in the coming months, add other activities to your training such as swimming, cycling or yoga. Or try something new. If you’ve never run a triathlon, sign up for your first one. If you enjoy swimming but have never tested your abilities, try going for a personal record by setting a goal and an end date for yourself.