Ultrarunning Off-Season Considerations: Time Off & the Return to Training

Fitness is a funny thing. For most people a general level of fitness — which will allow them to really enjoy life — is totally sufficient. They can join friends for a hike, a bike ride, or go skiing on a whim, and it won’t crush or injure them. Getting old then, is the process of losing the ability to participate in these types of activities, and thus, in life.

Since you can’t fake a hundred miler, and a general level of fitness won’t get you there, ultrarunning by contrast, has to at some point be about specificity. This is often to the detriment of our general fitness, overall strength, flexibility, and our anaerobic capacity (and my ability to do standing back flips). I think if you look at the top level of any sport, you will see variations of this — athletes lacking broad fitness in lieu of specificity.

For example Tour de France cyclists Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis’s books both touch on this topic. Hamilton, who rode with Lance Armstrong from 1995 to 2001, makes the point that — after a considerable amount of performance enhancing drugs — he was probably one of the fittest humans on Earth. However, his training was so specific he could barely walk a mile into town with his wife, and compares himself to an old man with limited mobility. While preparing for the Tour de France Floyd Landis once rode 24,000 miles in a single year (an average of 500 miles a week!). However, when he wasn’t riding his bike he was simply too tired to do anything else, except lay on the couch. You might not be able to achieve this level of volume, but any ultrarunner who has pushed their physiological limits knows this feeling.

Although taking time off seems like an obvious factor in successfully training for and racing in ultramarathons from year to year, it’s often completely ignored. After all, what makes someone good at ultras — focused effort, love of the trails/endorphins/running — also makes it hard for them to sit still, or focus on other things for a couple of months. The end result, at some point, is a broken runner.

The level of training that delivers you to your very best as an ultrarunner is simply untenable. Stay there too long — at 5% body fat, running 120 mountain miles a week — and you will break. This is nothing new, and it’s the basic premise behind periodization. However, our community seems to really struggle with the time-off part — so I decided to write this.

I urge you to focus on other things for a while. For me personally it’s not a question, I wouldn’t physically be able to run hard twelve months out of the year anyway; I’m not built like that — and I’m arguing that no one is. Plus our license plates here in Salt Lake City say, the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” and as the resident skeptic, it’s my duty to fact check that shit.

Big volume running by its very nature is not good for us. Obviously, there are aspects of it that are very good for us, but there is point of diminishing returns. The oxidative stress, cortisol load, and the general wear and tear takes its toll. I think we all intuitively know this, but have a look around, our sport has left a junkyard of former athletes who are wrecked, spit out far older than their years.

So how do we not end up in that junkyard of broken ultrarunners?

To put it as simply as I can — intelligent programming. The most important part of which is time away from running. How much to take and when depends on your running history, your schedule, your life, and how banged up you actually are.

Insufficient recovery time will cause a person to break down and get injured. This doesn’t just mean structural injuries either; there are any number of hormonal issues ultrarunners deal with, like hypothyroid, adrenal fatigue, amenorrhea (female loss of menstrual cycle), and low testosterone (male loss of life-source) to name the issues I see most often as a coach.

High volume training, inappropriate lifestyle choices, and imperfect nutrition all promote inflammation and a chronic stress response. Inflammation is the precursor to all disease; so staying out of that state is probably a good idea, no? Well, that’s too bad for us, because the point of endurance training is to apply as much stress as you can handle — without getting injured — and this creates inflammation.

Can we have our cake and eat it too? I’m not even sure what that means, but I’m certain you can achieve a high level of fitness in an “extreme” sport and still be healthy. How? Respect the recovery process.

What to focus on during your time off: (at least 2 weeks to 2 months)

  • Time off: This will allow you to recover both structurally and hormonally. We know constant stress isn’t sustainable, so take some time away from running to allow your body to fully heal. This doesn’t mean it’s time to do that century bike ride you’ve always wanted to try. Instead, if you are crazy antsy — walk a lot.
  • Nutrition: Without the stress and caloric depletion of training you can start to think and eat “clean” more easily. Time away from the sugar laced gels/bars, fake race foods, and recovery powders to focus on whole non-processed foods. The power of nutrition to help in your recovery process cannot be overstated.
  • Sleep: Yes, focus on sleep. I’m not kidding. Try sleeping until you naturally wake up, without an alarm. Get off the caffeine roller coaster for a little while and reacquaint yourself with real, restful, glorious sleep. Adequate sleep (in the 8-10 hour range) allows our bodies the opportunity to repair cells and regulate hormones that control all aspects of our existence, from sex drive to athletic performance.

What to focus on when you come back to training: (at least 4 weeks)

  • Strength fundamentals: Functional strength that is not necessarily running specific. Find a smart trainer to ferret out your strength deficiencies; fix these, and you will be injury resistant. Have them also show you Power/Olympic weightlifting movements, and some single-leg strength work (which is more run-specific). To avoid adding extra weight to carry around, simply monitoring your body fat percentage — we’re just after the strength, not the mass.
  • Form: There is efficiency to be gained — which equals miles per minute — by refining your running form. Get with a coach or Dr. YouTube to work on improving your run form.
  • Anaerobic work: High-end efforts, and intervals work the top end of your heart rate. It’s benefits are often completely overlooked by ultrarunners; trust me there are trickle down benefits for us long slow(er) distance racers. For extra points work on your anaerobic fitness without your running shoes, try a bike or skis (seems to work for Killian).

From here, you can work back into your typical Base Period of training, and enjoy the marked improvement over previous years.

What’s the point? Longevity.
If you want to crush it and risk flaming out, put the hammer down year after year and see how long you can hold on. If you want ultra and adventure running to be a part of your life into your golden years, then take some time off, and start each year with the fundamentals.

There are 43 comments

  1. Charlie Montana

    Outstanding piece of writing and advice Matt, thanks for sharing this with us. I'm guessing many of us feel guilty taking time off from serious training but your great points should help to illustrate the net benefit of resting the body. I have rediscovered skate skiing this winter and it is a nice alternative for the off-season!

  2. astroyam

    Timely article, Matt.

    With running, is it better to take time off completely, meaning 0 running, or is it better to maintain some minimal amount, like a couple times a week for 45 minutes easy? It seems quite often that minor tweaks/injuries actually get worse from time off, and then require a risky break-in period to get back in shape.

  3. Brad S.

    This is a solid article. I finally took two full months off at the end of 2012 due to PF and focused on alot of swimming/elipitical/weight lifting and even some power lifting. Basically, anything but running to let this foot recover. Not even one month back to running I have already PR'ed two different distances. Coincidence? Maybe. But most likely due to letting those running muscles rest and obtaining more overall body strength.

  4. Martin from Italy

    Not sure about doing the top end anaerobic stuff during the first 4 weeks of getting back to training – maybe wait for a month or two of base endurance work first before ramping it up (especially if you don't want to get hurt).

    All the rest is absolutely correct and exactly what I advocate to myself and my athletes.

    1. Matt Hart (Trail Run

      Hey Martin,
      Obviously if you stick to the script, you are right. Standard coaching protocol wouldn't throw in anaerobic work during a transition phase. But I think as coaches it's our jobs to keep pushing the boundaries and dogmas of what is perceived to work. Test it and see if it works. Alter it and see if that works better.

      Speed work doesn't necessarily end in injury, and [most] ultrarunners need to embrace it more. Most athletes with a good baseline fitness and some running history can easily incorporate two speed sessions into their week — intelligently programmed, of course. It works really well with the strength programming I think, too. It also sort of primes the pump for them to do more meaningful speed work in a later meso-cycle. I'm a data guy and it gives me some meaningful baseline tests early in the year, that I can then retest later to track progression.

      Try it and let me know how it goes…

      1. Martin from Italy

        Hi Matt,

        I always use speed work (off and on runs, standard intervals from 100m up to 3km, and hill repeats) as part of my training protocol since, as you mention, "they work". I also advocate the use of plyometrics for trail running (I just recently posted an article on that in my blog "Endurance Training in Progress) for much the same reason – strength and speed.

        I was just worried about the way it looked in the text coming under the heading of "What to focus on when you come back to training: (at least 4 weeks)". People coming out and blasting 400 or 800 repeats after having rested up for two to four weeks = recipe for possible ligament and tendon injuries.

        I figured that was not your real meaning but thought it good to point it out :-)

        Loved the rest of the article though – strength work, good nutrition (I just recently went semi vegetarian and it seems to be positive), good form and REST!

  5. Peter L

    Matt, Thanks. I won't feel bad about sleeping in, and not having run much at all in November and December. Knowing that one can't fake a 100, I am starting my morning runs despite the inversion here in Salt Lake City, but do I really have to give up the latte?

  6. Shelby

    Good stuff, Matt. It's gotta be hard not to overdo it when there's time to devote to running and no outside forces to keep a person from overdoing it until the damage is done.

    I suspect that as a mom with FT job, I have a built-in sensitivity to over training, since the effects are felt immediately at home. Being too exhausted after running to enjoy time with my kids or having them make comments about my long absences on the weekends, naturally keeps the excessive mileage in check. Also, summertime ends up being my off-season as getting them outside to have their own adventures becomes priority.

  7. Coach Weber

    Right on, Matt.

    Central to my endurance program for ultramarathon athletes are the 2 non-running days per week, one rest week per month (about 40 miles or 6 hours of duration), and one or two major breaks from training per year (one to two months of easy pace, terrain and volume).

    Rest is important and without it not only is one's longevity in the sport compromised but so is improvement from individual training sessions.

  8. Yeti

    Top notch writing as usual Matt. I believe every word you said is sound, solid truth as it pertains to racing, but for me, I just can't/won't take that kind of time away from running. I view my life as too short, the moments too fleeting, to ever squirrel it away doing things I don't want to do in preparation for a later date that isn't guaranteed. The way I solved this dilemma and corrected all my injury(and some financial) woes was to completely give up racing. The relief to body and mind came almost instantly. Two years later now and I only occasionally miss racing and I certainly never miss all the strain, strict regimentation and frequent injury. My longer runs, rides, hikes, paddles, etc., now come at the appropriate time for ME. My mind isn't muddled and deceived into believing what I should or shouldn't be doing all the time, and as a result, I'm having a whole hell of a lot more fun and reward in just the simple doing. I say all this, not as any criticism to the very specific run-to-race philosophy, but simply as an alternative to much of what we as runners often believe we have/need to be doing and the steep toll it often takes on our overall health which Matt so excellently described. Worked for one man at least. Big thanks irunfar for allowing me to at least follow racing from afar!

  9. Andy

    Agree with everyone — great writing and really sound advice, even if not always easy to follow (which is probably true for most good advice or we wouldn't need it to begin with).

    I'm wondering what you think about just generally lower volume training for us mid-packers with jobs, families, etc., in lieu of crazy big miles interspersed with time "off." We may not reach the same level of performance but perhaps avert injury, illness, and/or burnout. I try to compensate for paltry miles with form and intensity work, as you suggest, but mostly just try to have fun. Coach Weber's "rest week" (40 miles or 6 hrs) is a medium to heavy week for me (unless I'm at a peak week pre-race, which might be 50+)! Thoughts? Thanks.

  10. Steve P

    Thanks, Matt….great article.

    What Deb and I focus on this time of year is to mostly snowshoe hike or XC ski(for hours at a time) with little running on the weekend. I also wear a HR monitor when I do run and keep it in the Z2-Z3 range. We'll know when it's time to get back on the horse, but can't do much running in deep snow anyway, so when it's gone we return to more running.

    1. Ben Nephew

      I always thought that snowshoeing was a good thing for staying healthy, and last year I was unfortunately able to test that theory. We barely got any snow, so I could train at a high level on trails and roads all throughout the winter. At the time, it was great, a 6 month fall of perfect trail running weather. I had a good start to my racing, but by the Fall my legs were pretty beat, especially my hamstrings. All year I was fighting overuse tightness in my hamstrings. This winter hasn't been much better so far, but I'll be staying off the roads and doing more hiking at the very least.

  11. Martin

    Great timing with this article :)

    I definitely like the 'walk during your time off' advice, have been practicing that lately between my scarcer winter running workouts. The only problem is, that sometimes I lose it and end up walking for almost 2 hours:)

    But I've always wondered how much the sub-freezing level weather makes us more tired, or maybe puts one in a hibernation like mode. I spent most of the last winter in New Zealand, having a summer while it was super cold back home. And great trails and scenery put aside I felt like I put myself in the best shape of my life. Came back home and suffered, but probably not only because it was still cold.

    It's definitely interesting to see Kilian do what he does, skimo during winter – running for the rest of year, seems to be working out pretty well for him. And he talks about the psychological side of it too.

    Maybe Tony Krupicka might be onto something too with all the scrambling he does. Definitely a way to stay in mountains in off-season time (and it's definitely anaerobic work most of the time), but this is not something you can do if the rock becomes a solid piece of ice.

  12. Steve L

    Everything was going well until I got to the Oxidative stress and Cortisol load part, never heard of these things. After a quick google I'm still a little foggy on the oxidative stress and how it relates to ultra running and heavy training? I've always valued time off but now I will even more.

    Thanks,

  13. Michael K

    Sage advice indeed, Matt. I really resonate with your writing style-keep em coming. When I read through Noakes' Lore of Running a few of my main take-aways were the power of rest (Kenyan training agenda certainly emphasizes down time) as well as how so few elite athletes in younger years are still pounding away at the top down the line. I don't think it's just the elites that can "only" run a handful of truly world class (for their standards)race efforts, but for us older ultrarunners, we probably have only so many "good seasons" in us, the fewer the less rest we take.

    Or maybe I'm just trying to justify my days at Snowbasin when I could have been snow running instead :)

    1. Caper

      Didn't notice this post…I ordered Noakes book, it's shipping now. Glad you took something positive away from it as I was nervous I just bought a dictionary. That said I'm late to the start @37 so all my "good seasons" are in front of me.

  14. Caper

    I enjoyed that article. I'm not much for fluff pieces on why I love to run and staring at the trees make me whole, I enjoy the outdoors I don't need someone to try and sell it to me…but this stuff is great.

    I'm not at your guys level, but understand the guilt feeling for taking a day off. I'm using the RFP program now with Mondays/Fridays off and sticking to it like glue. When I feel like running on a Monday I say "What would Bryon do?" Page 94 of RFP is referenced alot.

    In my case if I do too much running and not enough CT or stretching my ITBS flares up and quickly. I tell my wife no stretch no run. Oh ya I loved this quote…made me chuckle. "and as the resident skeptic, it’s my duty to fact check that shit"

  15. Alastair

    I had the (mis)fortune to break my big toe a couple of weeks ago. Initially I was annoyed at the running I was going to be missing out on, but I've actually found it great to have been forced to have two solid weeks off and a couple more still to come before I'm back to 100%. A couple of minor ankle and shin issues have now completely cleared up and I feel physically and mentally better than I would have if I hadn't had my accident. Every cloud has a silver lining I guess ;)

  16. dave m

    Great concepts Matt. Can you suggest a baby sitter to take kids for 3 months straight to get that 8-10 hours of sleep? :)

    Not sure I agree yet with the hormonal rebalance side; I have heard endocrinologists indicate that adrenal fatigue and the like have no solid research basis behind it. Although many articles can be found in a google search, I am not sure they are from reputable sources. Just curious what sources you refer to for this and your article in general.

  17. Tim

    The part about processed foods was interesting, most of us eat relatively healthy some are vegetarian some are vegan etc etc…I always wonder why so many use processed foods during racing. I have read alot of race reports from some elite athletes and always read about stomachs going bad. We all know that processed food is not that great for us so why take it down during our most stressful times?

    1. Charlie M.

      Stress = cortisol = craving for junk food/high-calorie food. Racing = loss of common sense = poor food choices at aid stations

      1. KenZ

        Agreed, but couldn't one argue that during a race choosing processed things like gels is good (while you can stomach them) because they add very little extra that would upset a stomach? This is, of course, vs. highly processed non-sport specific items like cinnamon buns, cheese pizza, etc.

        I do think one of the reasons people's stomachs go bad during races is that they're almost always performing at an intensity, if not intensity AND duration, which they do not during training.

        Lastly, "train how you fight." I hate processed crap, and almost always train with real foods, be they bean burritos, or good gorp, or home made protein bars. But coming closer to a race, I ensure I do a few long runs eating the gels, chips, and other crap that I know I might have to subsist on in a race.

  18. Dave G

    "Plus our license plates here in Salt Lake City say, the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” and as the resident skeptic, it’s my duty to fact check that shit."

    Haha. Made my day.

    Great article and perfect timing. Thanks for this.

  19. Tim

    I think there should be better choices overall for runners at the aid stations. I have volunteered at several and notice less are eating the oreos, chips, gels and other processed sugar items. Big hits lately have been fruit, any kind.

    I think the "gel" makers (I will not name) have sold people to think they need gels when in actuality they are probably not good for any of us.

  20. Simon

    Truly brilliant take on things Yeti – love your ideals, and your solutions.

    Last year was my first ultra-running, this year I had big plans for all the races I wanted to do, but the last few weeks have seen me re-think this, to the extent that I'm only doing 4 races this year, 3 of them that i'd already entered anyway. Other than that I'm going to "challenge" myself to run some of the shorter national trails near my (or my girlfriend's) house (I live in the UK). This will enable me to explore the countryside, enjoy my running, include my girlfriend in the whole day – She can crew for me from the car, but rather than a 2 minute "grab and go" I can stop for 10 minutes, have a natter, eat some food, then head off again…much more fun.

    Racing is still real fun, and you meet some great people – but at the end of the day running is what matters, however we do it.

  21. solarweasel

    I too have dialed it back this winter.

    The last two winters were so mild that I ran right on through Dec, Jan, Feb… and by July 1 I was feeling pretty burnt out — which is a real shame given my biggest races were always scheduled for Aug and Sept.

    This year we've got snow (victory dance) and for the month of Jan I vowed to spend more hours on snowshoes, skate skis and AT skis than on foot while outdoors. So far, I've made good on this promise to myself — and I have to say, I feel great. My base fitness seems to be sustained, I'm developing some strength and muscle tone, and I have no doubt that come mid Feb I'll be excited, chomping at the bit to get fit for my ultra season.

    Thanks for the article, Matt! I agree with you — but it's taken me two years of trial (and subsequent error) to figure it out.

  22. Andy

    Surprised no one has mentioned the common winter cross training exercise that is low impact but works hams, quads, glutes, lots of core, and some upper body. It's a pre-requisite to winter running and I did an hour of it this morning before making some first tracks in the 5 inches of fresh that fell over night. Hell, somebody has to shovel the driveway so I can get out and get to the trailhead!

  23. Matt Hart

    The best resource on adrenal fatigue is a book by Dr. James Wilson called "Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome" ~ http://ow.ly/ha2WB

    As for whether it exists or not, which I think is what you are asking. Well we know when the adrenals fail you have Addison's disease. It follows that there has to be a spectrum from healthy to failure. There is however no direct test for such a syndrome of sub-optimal adrenal function. The best way to do this is to test the stress hormone cortisol 3-4 different times during the day, since it has a diurnal rhythm.

  24. Toph

    Matt, great article. Although my training routine from running to ski-mo only has a few days of weird transition (too much snow in the spring to run well, too much mush to ski and vice versa in the fall), it is the mental and sit down plan it out preparation part that I have to fight. I have a full time physically demanding job, part time class both with erratic schedules. Then training fits in somewhere, with most of it requiring a headlamp. The hardest part is taking time to stop and sleep. Recovery vs. FOMO. "If I train tired, I'll be better when I am in the second half of the race when I am tired" logic has only gotten me so far before illness catches me.

    Great article and recommending as reading.

    See ya out there

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