Now that the fall racing season is winding down, many runners find it challenging to keep up their healthy habits through the winter months. While it’s important to let your body relax, recover and heal, the off-season is anything but “off.” Taking time away from race-specific training is good for your mental health and your relationship with the sport, but there is plenty you can do during your down time to prepare for the next training cycle. Here are a few ways to spend the winter months that won’t derail your healthy habits and will put you in a better position to tackle another season…
1) Read, write and run. It’s like having a summer reading list all over again, only this time you get to choose the books! Continuing education is imperative to having a long, sustainable relationship with running…and who doesn’t like a little extra encouragement now and then? There are a plethora of fantastic books by runners for runners that will help you with your training and racing. Two of my favorites are Once a Runner by John L. Parker and Endure by Alex Hutchinson. Some other classics are What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami and Born To Run by Christopher McDougall. If you’re into the exercise science component behind training, 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald or Running On Air by Budd Coates are great go-to’s. It is also very helpful and therapeutic to write about your running! There are a lot of runners who keep a journal, and just jot down a few notes about their workout after every time they log a few miles. This can include metrics from the run like time of day, pace and distance, in addition to more introspective information like how your legs felt or what you thought about while you were out on the road. You can find running journals at almost every bookstore and all over Amazon. However, none of this will make much of a difference if you don’t keep running! Take some of the information you are learning or encouragement you’re receiving and implement it during your next workout. You don’t have to be in the middle of a training cycle to have a groundbreaking run!!
2) Form focuses and strength-training. The off-season is the perfect time to “clean things up” and address any mechanical issues or injuries that might be nagging you. Because your training volume is lower during the off-season, you’ll have a little extra “wiggle room” in terms of time to dedicate to training and the amount of stress you are able to impose on your system. First and foremost, if you have any lingering injuries this is the time to rest as much as possible and make sure to get back to 100%. Take as much time as you need between training cycles to guarantee you are starting the next one fresh! Secondly, try and determine where any injuries or weaknesses are coming from. Is it an issue with running form and mechanics, or a more structural strength imbalance? Doing corrective exercises or drill work to help fix these issues will allow you to get the most out of your training once you start again. I like to do a lot of mobility, flexibility and balance work during the off-season. This is the kind of stuff that always takes a lot of time to do and therefore takes a back seat during a training cycle when running volume is at its peak. Use this extra down time to find and fix anything that might come back to haunt you later on down the road.
3) Join a support group. The winter months can be a tough time to find the motivation you need to get up and get out the door. It’s cold, dark and perhaps your running tribe is scattered across town with no formal “practices” on the calendar. You’ll want to be proactive and plug yourself into a community that will keep your body moving and your spirits high! You might be able to gather a few friends for some early morning mileage accountability, or even just start attending a lunchtime fitness class at your local gym. It’s important to not attempt to get through the off-season alone. You’ll want to keep up a good base of cardiovascular fitness, and your success rate will be much higher if you have a team of people who share that common goal!
4) Find a hobby. Let’s face it, running can be all-consuming. If you’re not out running, chances are good you are thinking about running. When you are not thinking about running, I bet you are talking about running. It’s great that we have such an outstanding running community here in Pittsburgh, with year-round events to keep us entertained and engaged. However, it’s very important to be a well-rounded runner so that you can maintain a positive, productive and healthy relationship with the sport. We’ve all heard stories of burnout, and they rarely have a happy ending. Make a short list of all the things you haven’t had time to do, learn or experience during your training season. Have you wanted to practice speaking a new language? Did you get a fancy camera for your birthday that you haven’t had time to play around with yet? Are you interested in the age-old pursuit of building ships in bottles? Your hobby can even be exercise-related so you can kill two birds with one stone! Kickboxing anyone? An off-season cycle is a great chance to spice up your fitness routine, and dip your toes into something new and exciting!
5) Plan your year. You’ve likely learned a lot over the course of the last training season. You’ve made strides as an athlete, and also figured out that a few things might happen to work better than others. Did you try a marathon for the first time and hate it? You don’t have to give up running just because the marathon distance isn’t meant for you. Did you start your training with walk-jog intervals, but feel like you are ready for more of a challenge the next time around? Spending quality time in your own head during the off-season can often help you create a clear plan of action for the future. Not being around the constant pressure of friends, family or a coach might be exactly the separation you need in order to figure out what is best for you as a runner and human being. You don’t necessarily need to sit down and create an in-depth 10-month training plan, but it’s helpful to get an idea of what races/distances/events you’d like to check off your list over the course of the next 365 days. It’s not an exact science and everything is subject to change, but giving yourself a nudge in the right direction will help get you motivated to resume training once the off-season is over. Sketch out an outline, create a simple framework and lay the foundation for a successful training cycle before it has even begun!