Taking a break from structured running is a fundamental aspect of sound annual training cycles for runners. A great article in the Wall Street Journal following the 2012 London Olympics shared how three of the best American male distance runners took complete time off after their last races. While this may sound unreasonable to those who are accustomed to working out every day, the following tips provide insight into how to take an offseason break, why it’s beneficial to your next training cycle, and why failing to take a break can lead to fatigue and potential injury if you immediately resume training after completing a goal race.
Run, Don’t Rest, The Day(s) After the Big Race
In the immediate days following your goal race, you should jog easy for at least one or two days. Why? When you run, you pump oxygen-rich blood to muscle tissue that has been damaged on the cellular level.
Running easy in the days after a big race can be hard to do, especially if your last race was a marathon, but it’s what is best for your body. Plus, you’ll get some information about what next steps you should take during the offseason. For instance, if your plantar fascia is sore during these easy runs, then you should visit a soft-tissue therapist (physical therapist, chiropractor, massage therapist or Active Release Therapy [ART] professional) as soon as possible so that when it’s the right time to resume serious training, you’ll be ready.
Then, Take Several Days of Complete Rest
When you tell recreational runners they should do nothing for a few days at the beginning of their offseason after one or two days of post-race jogging, some may respond: “There is no way I could do that. I have to work out.”
But if you pose the same question to an elite runner, he or she may simply ask, “How many days should I take off. A couple or a whole week?”
Rest and recovery are fundamental to sound training, yet so many runners think that if they take a day off they’ll lose fitness, or they’ll have a guilty conscience about not working out. Your body needs rest. It doesn’t need months of rest, but a few days of complete rest are extremely helpful when you transition from that racing season to the offseason. Again, the best runners in the world take complete rest between the end of their racing season and the start of their next build-up, so you should be willing to do the same.
If You Can, Invest Some Money in Yourself During the Offseason
The offseason is a great time to see a soft-tissue specialist—a physical therapist, chiropractor, massage therapist or ART specialist—who can not only give you an assessment of how strong or weak your body is, but can also work on any problem areas.
It’s rare that runners feel 100-percent healthy all of the time. Yet when you’re in the middle of training mode, it’s hard to rationalize taking a few days off to see someone and let the body heal itself. That’s why the offseason is such a great time to take care of aches, pains or imbalances.
If you don’t have someone to see, visit your local running shoe store, and someone there should have a couple of good recommendations for you. Finally, go out of your way to find an ART therapist. I’ve found that a good ART professional is worth his or her weight in gold.
Everyone’s Offseason Break Differs
There is nothing set in stone about what activities you should complete during your offseason break once you’ve taken a few days of complete rest. While this work could be considered cross-training, I prefer to call it aerobic work—workouts that are completely fueled by the aerobic metabolism.
I live in Colorado, and at every point in the year, hiking is an option (although you might need snow shoes in certain places in the winter); I encourage runners to take advantage of the trails. Walking up and down trails strengthens the muscles and tendons in the ankle, knee and hip joints, and can help improve “joint integrity,” which is beneficial for all runners.
If you live in the flatlands, try a brisk walk, swim laps, or try aqua jogging. The key here is to do it gently—the goal is to get a small aerobic stimulus that doesn’t put much stress on the ankles, knees and hips.
Options abound. Nordic skiing is easy on the joints and a great way to build aerobic fitness. Bikes and elliptical machines are available at most gyms, and are good options as well. Remember, when you first get back into the aerobic work, keep things gentle. You aren’t trying to gain fitness for your run training, but rather getting in a few weeks of aerobic stimuli before you resume running.
Make General Strength and Mobility Gains
There’s no better time to make gains in General Strength and Mobility (GSM) than during the offseason break. I prioritize this work over aerobic cross-training during the offseason. I would rather see a runner complete 30 to 40 minutes of GSM—this could include some Active Isolated Flexibility work, also known as “rope stretching”—for a few weeks, then start running, than see someone in the pool every day, do no GSM, and then jump into their run training.
The bottom line is that all runners—from the most elite athletes in the world to people just off the couch and training for a 5K—can get stronger and use GSM to prevent injuries. I’m a big believer in runners doing non-running work because it allows them to run more miles more intense workouts. GSM work greatly decreases the frequency of injuries for those runners who do it daily.
Can you run injury-free and not do GSM? Sure, but why risk it? Said another way, think of GSM work as an insurance policy against injury.
The problem with GSM work: Most people find it less enjoyable than running. You’re not moving from point A to point B, but rather doing work at the gym or at home before and after your run. I get that; I really do. But trust me on this—if you do GSM religiously for two or three weeks, you’re going to feel different in your hips, and your posture will improve. You’ll feel stronger and more powerful when you walk. Then, when you resume your run training, you’ll be ready to handle all of the running that you want to do safely.
Make Sure You’re Bored Before You Resume Running
There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs among the best runners in the world. They don’t exactly know when they’re ready to come back from their offseason break, so they simply wait until they’re bored. Their breaks could be as short as 10 days, or as long as a month. For most elite athletes, the offseason break consists of one week of nothing, one to two weeks of cross-training and some light GSM (since they will usually complete a great deal of ancillary work once their training resumes), and then it’s time to get back to running.
My experience reveals that recreational athletes wait until they’re bored for an hour, and then decide to go for an hour-long run. Better to be bored for several days, then start with an easy 30-minute jog. Even then you might say, “I still want some more time off.” Remember, the body needs to rest and recover. If you don’t give your body a break now, you run the risk of becoming overly fatigued during your serious training, or getting injured because your bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles haven’t recovered from the last race—especially if that last race was a marathon.
So be smart about your offseason break. Make sure to start a daily GSM routine, and then wait until you’re really bored before you resume serious training.