Get Serious About the Off Season

Libby's Guide to Total Relaxation
Relax. You’ve earned it! (Photo credit: HewGriff)

So maybe you worked really hard all fall to train for a big race, a half-marathon or a marathon, or even something shorter like a breakneck 10k.  And maybe when your goal race was over you felt a bit entitled to taking a week off…or two…or three…and then suddenly you find yourself chugging a beer and chowing down on holiday cookies on your fourth day of no running and feeling great about it.

As a site that promotes all runners working hard to get faster and become better athletes you might expect me to tell you to get off your butt and start training before your muffin top comes back.  And…sure, there’s a point at which “taking a break” turns into “no longer fit,” and I don’t at all encourage you to go all the way there.  But as long as you’re feeling good about it and taking care of yourself, it is my opinion that you absolutely should take an off-season.

Why take an off-season?

We’ve all heard “use it or lose it.”  And it’s true for athletes of every kind:  if you stop training, you start losing fitness.  I mean, it’s a no-brainer, and if you’ve been running for some time you’ve probably even experienced the phenomenon of detraining when you head back out on the road for the first time in a month.  It’s a lot harder!

Overuse injuries – you may reason that it’s a bad idea to take any time off, and lace up your running shoes for a tempo in the same week as racing a goal marathon.  But there’s a reason we’re constantly warned against “overuse” injuries, and it’s no secret that there’s a high occurrence of these injuries in our beloved sport.  The answer? Take an off-season.

Mental state – I love running, and because you’re here, I know you do too (it’s okay, you can admit it to us).  But toward the end of marathon training, when my mileage climbed up over 60 per week while I was working 60-75 hours per week, well, I started to hate running.  It became a chore, something I had to do.  And while my quantity of mileage was there, my quality of training suffered because I was tired and grumpy and miserable every time I laced up.  The answer? Take an off-season.

“Off-Season” does not mean “shut down completely.”

In fact, you can even run through your off-season; I am.  But I’m taking a different tack and have drastically lowered my mileage, choosing to focus on the quality of my running instead of quantity, making relaxation and enjoyment my number one priority, followed by form, and throwing in workouts I think are fun.  Over the last few weeks, running has made a real comeback in the sphere of things I like to do.  And when I experimented with running a 5k just for fun? Huge PR, baby!  22:49 at the Turkey Trot!  But more importantly I had a great time racing because I’d taken a two-month mental break from the pressure of the training season.

If you choose to stop running during the off-season, you certainly have to worry about deconditioning, but with a little research and common sense it’s easy to mitigate the effects of taking a break.  Cross train, or instead of cutting running entirely, just take less time for it.  Monitor your cookie intake.

We runners often lose sight of something else when we’re in high training mode, and that’s ancillary training.  Swimming, biking and cross-country skiing are all excellent cross-training activities and you should try them!  But consider that your off-season is an opportunity to add to your running, not just to supplement it with something else.  Try strength training (talk to your doctor, blah blah), a cheesy dance aerobics class (cheesy is just a synonym for fun!), or butt-kicking boot camp.  Take up a martial art.  Do T’ai Chi with those guys you always see in the park!

Penny is helping.
Penny is helping.

If you’re an endurance runner you already know you have endurance.  There are a lot of other activities we can do to strengthen ourselves as total athletes, and the off-season is a great time to work on your flexibility or upper body strength or agility.  After all, you’re spending less time on running, leaving more time for cookies. And sure, okay, working out a bit too.

As for me, I’m getting back to yoga.

How about you, Salties? Are you taking an off season? If so, have you been working on strengthening yourself as a total athlete?  If not, why not?

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. This post couldn’t be more timely for me! I have really been not up for much training but still doing yoga 2x/week which I am enjoying and running 3-4x/week. Ideally I’d like to be doing more but just am not mentally there yet from this past season, and really probably last two seasons building up to Ironman Wisconsin this past September. I am just hoping I don’t lose too much and know I will have my work cut out for me to have a good run at Boston this April. However right now frankly I just don’t care! I am hoping taking it easy the rest of December will help me recharge so start January I am back at it and mentally ready to start following a training plan. For now though I will continue to run when I want and no Garmin. Hopefully I’ll feel renewed soon!

    1. Girl, I’m with you. My brain is still fried, even after two months! I’m hoping January brings the itch back, once the holidays are over.

      From the reading I’ve done on this topic, the generally accepted wisdom is that training at about 70% of your peak level should allow you to maintain your fitness, but sources vary on how to translate that. As for me, I’m only running about half the mileage I was during peak marathon training, but because the weather is so cold (I run hot), I’m running 8:30-9:30 miles instead of the 10:30 miles I was running this summer. Will that make up the difference? I sure hope so!

  2. I’m really “training” for the first time this year, in preparation for my first marathon in February. I’ve already decided that once that’s done, I’m going to get back into trail running, rocking some 5Ks and doing some just-for-fun races that the kids can do with me (color runs, zombie runs, foam fests…whatever we can do together, basically). I’ve learned that I take myself way too seriously when I’m training, and I think plugging back in to what “really” matters during the off-season is important.

    And fun!

    1. I think it’s the off-season that allows us to have fun training! It’s hard work, but you’ll thank yourself in February.

      But it sounds like you’ve got the same idea I do – 5k’s are where it’s at! I’ve already decided that 2014 is gonna be the year I “5-and-dime” it, meaning I work on getting faster at my 5 and 10k times. I’ve tackled the endurance thing (and whoa, it tackled me back, to some extent), and I’m excited to switch gears a little and work on something fast when I do finally jump back into training!

  3. Awesome! I just wrote a blog entry about my “off season”. I’m focusing on cutting my run volume, running mostly for fun, and adding in some stuff I haven’t been doing as much of — weights, yoga, and a little speed work.

    I made it a specific goal NOT to do any race planning for next year until late this month.

    I’m thinking of it as a reset — physical AND mental — before I jump back into training for spring races.

  4. For the first time since training for my first HM almost 3 years ago – then running 5 more – and did I mention I was 50 for the first one? – I’m taking an off season.

    Even at my fastest I’m slow & my mileage rarely goes above 20 while training for a HM, but since my next one isn’t until June, I’m only running 3 x week, not timing a lot of those, & occasionally taking a week off from running.

    I always do strength training & yoga, but I’m hitting the weights harder & trying to lose those last few pounds.

    I think as you get older you see the benefits in rest & recovery more. Or maybe it’s just me.