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

Considerations for your ultrarunning off season: how much time should you take off and how should you get into training.

By on January 7, 2013 | Comments

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.

Matt Hart
Matt Hart is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Outside and Men's Journal magazines. The former professional ultrarunner is also head coach and owner of Coaching Endurance LLC. To see more of his writing, check out his online portfolio.