Turning On To The Off-Season

A look at deciding to take, make the best use of, and transition out of a running off-season.

By on September 21, 2017 | Comments

It’s almost autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere, and many of us should at least be considering whether or not it’s time to take a break or thinking about when we plan to start some sort of off-season. Below we collect some of iRunFar’s resources on deciding whether it’s time for an off-season, how to make the most of it, and how to transition out of it.

Deciding to Take a Break

Ian Torrence wrote Post-Ultra Downtime: How Much Is Enough? primarily discussing how long of a break is appropriate after a particular ultramarathon, before ending by pointing out that an off-season is appropriate after one’s race season. “Consider taking time off from running at the end of your racing season. A month or two away from running resets the body and mind for next year’s competitive calendar. Many ultrarunners are reluctant to take a vacation from the sport for fear of losing hard-earned fitness and perhaps missing out on an epic event.” He goes on to write,

Off-seasons may be unnecessary unless you have a nagging injury or are experiencing burnout. On the other hand, a break from ultra-distance races and high training volume will keep you running while recharging the proverbial batteries and providing the time necessary to improve weaknesses. Consider taking a few months to focus on shorter races, develop your speed, and build your strength and agility.

Last year, in On Taking A Break, I wrote about how there’s often a natural point in one’s running schedule, such as a late summer or early autumn 100 miler, after which a break fits quite naturally, but that life can hand you an unplanned off-season and to embrace that,

There are, of course, unplanned running breaks, as well. Perhaps you come to a time when you react prudently to an injury or a bit of overtraining and ease off your training. If that break is substantial enough and, especially, if it causes you to miss your final target event of the season, you can make lemons into lemonade and use that time as your break, even if you decide to tack on a bit to give yourself as long a break as you would if you planned it.

The same goes when life just happens and forces a break on you. Sometimes, you’ll have the desire and motivation to ignore that blip and roll on with your running season. Other times, the shit-happens break will be a gaping chasm. Often, the difference between the two is simply a matter of perspective and that’s just fine.

In Ultrarunning Off-Season Considerations: Time Off And The Return To TrainingMatt Hart stresses the absolute importance of taking an off-season. “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.” He also lays out what to do during a two-week to two-month off-season, as well as how to transition back to training over a four-week stretch.

While overtraining is outside the scope of this collection, it can obviously be a reason to take a break, be it a modest or lengthy one. Check out Joe Uhan’s three-part series on overtraining syndrome (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) if you think you may have over done things with your running. Geoff Roes also shared his personal account of overtraining a few years back in his piece One Story Of Overtraining.

Making the Most of an Off-Season

While we might think of an off-season as purely a time to rest, it’s also a time when we can be active in ways that compliment our running throughout the rest of the year.

For example, in Strength Training For Runners, Stephanie Violett suggests spending a four-month off-season, with a “[f]ocus on addressing any weaknesses and lifting heavier weights.”

In Part 1 of Building A Trail Worthy Body, Rhielle Widders talks about using the off-season to cross train and address weaknesses, “As we immerse ourselves in the off-season and embrace the volume and schedule of our upcoming race season, it seems like the perfect time to consider various forms of cross training and how they might help sort out the deficits which can impede us, and give us newfound strength and efficiency.”

The off-season is also a great time for planning for your subsequent racing or adventure season. In The Planning SeasonAliza Lapierre writes, “Determining goals for a running season and for individual races helps in establishing training objectives and can help with perspective.” She also notes that it’s important to consider the relationship of one’s off-season and running season, “The timing of a race is a factor when planning a season. If you are taking an off season, then sufficient time to return to training and prepare for a race is important. Also, depending on where you live, factoring in winter training conditions is important.”

When the Off-Season Is Your Pre-Season

In Winter Training: Making This Your Most Effective Off-Season Yet, at first glance it appears that Travis Macy advocates for a bit of a different approach from those that focus on rest and strength. He does advocate for setting goals sooner rather than later as well as having fun with cross training, but also advocates for training with intent and racing. He writes, “If you have just finished a long racing season with structured training, a solid period of complete rest, and/or unstructured training for fun may be in order. At some point, however, resuming an individually appropriate degree of purpose with each workout may be helpful in maintaining motivation when outdoor conditions and darkness make getting out the door tough to do. Such intent may be achieved by randomly mixing workouts that seek to build fitness, or it can be done through a structured program that systematically builds fitness.” Indeed, this sounds in line with other recommendations of having an off-season, but merely incorporates the restart of structured training. Similarly, his racing advice calls for mixing things up, “When considering racing opportunities, consider shorter road races to work on the leg speed that may be pushed aside during your primary ultra season, snowshoe races to build leg strength and aerobic fitness, cross-country skiing or ski mountaineering events to really crank your heart rate, or winter multi-sport events (a common format is snowshoe/snowbike/skate ski) to provide motivation for growing skills in other disciplines.”

Likewise, Joe Uhan offers a plan for making optimal use of an off-season in Eight Steps For Your Best Trail Running Off-Season after taking important requisite rest. Uhan calls for training to resume, after any injuries or niggles heal. “Rest until you feel hungry to train. When thoughts of long runs or fast workouts seem exciting, then rest another four to seven days before starting to get after it.” Uhan offers his eight tips–including steps to increase metabolic and mechanical efficiency as well as pre-habilitiation–“to help runners structure their focus-race preparation, to best avoid training hiccups and costly trips to the physiotherapy office.”

Call for Comments

  • Do you have an off-season lined up for this autumn or winter?
  • If so, how do you plan to spend it?
  • What’s been your most successful off-season (however you’d define it) to date?
Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.