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Finlay McAndrew  •  Resetting Your Base – A guide to off-season training for runners •  21.12.2021 •  8 min read

Resetting your base – A guide to off-season training for runners

One of the trickiest elements of running training is nailing rest and recovery, especially the off-season. When? How? For how long? Most runners are scared of losing fitness and tend not to lower the intensity or mileage enough, and as a result don’t recover enough before starting a new training cycle or next event. 

The off-season period is the most important time of the year for a runner or athlete – if well executed, it will highly improve your chances to achieve your goals in the long term.  

In episode 19 of the Run4It Podcast, Finlay talks about the scientifically backed-up best practice approach to training through the off season.

If you’ve set yourself big goals for next year, this article summarises the main points that can help you nail them and have a good starting point for the new year and a new season.

What exactly is ‘off-season’?

An off-season isn’t necessarily defined by the time of year. Although it commonly occurs in the winter time as that’s when there might be a natural end to the season (and there’s less races), an off-season should come when an athlete has been building to a key event for a sustained period, and requires a period of rest and recovery. 

The purpose is to reset both physically and mentally. While the body and muscles need to recover, the mind also needs time off. Building to an event for so long places a lot of psychological stress on someone and the gravity of the event needs to be absorbed. 

On the flip side, athletes can quite often suffer from post-race blues and feel a bit down in an off-season. This is due to the fact that having a goal or objective releases dopamine and going into a period without set goals takes this stimulus away. Creating an actual set of focuses for the off-season, like sleeping more, can create a process for the mind and body to work towards.

How long should it be? 

Most runners will benefit from 2-4 weeks of down time. However, you need to be careful to not make it too long off as it can take a long time to build back up

If you haven’t been training for a big event, you don’t necessarily require an off-season as there may not be enough stress from training to need a full rest. If someone is feeling very tired, that stress is more likely to come from the rest of life. Running and exercise is an essential part of staying healthy and fit so taking 2 weeks off isn’t the best approach. Just because you see professionals doing it on social media doesn’t mean it’s right for you. 

How to organise your off-season 

1. Set yourself goals

Start setting your goals for next year, but don’t make any big decisions within 48 hours of finishing a big race. It’s easy to make bad decisions when they’re based on emotions. Taking some time to set goals from a logical point of view is key. 

Things always make more sense looking backwards than looking forwards, so set goals and then work back. This will define how long your off-season should be and what you should be working on. 

2. Remain focused on recovery 

If the goal of the off-season is to recover, make sure you recover. Drinking more alcohol, eating poorly and not sleeping won’t lead to good recovery and athletes will feel pretty average (if less recovered) when they go back to training. 

3. Reduce the intensity 

It’s easy to do too much intensity in an off-season and actually not recover. Doing exercises or sports that you’re not used to may cause too much stress for you to recover from and work against the objective. If the goal is recovery, low stress activities that have a parasympathetic effect are key.

4. Think long-term 

People often overestimate what they can achieve in the short term and underestimate what they can achieve in the long run: don’t miss out on valuable training time over the winter if you’ve got performance oriented goals for the following season. You should be starting to work on limiting factors and key objectives.

What to do when getting back into training?

Running in the winter is a great escape and very mindful experience, don’t let dark mornings and nights put you off. Many runners are surprised at how much they enjoy being out, especially the feeling after as it’s so rewarding. 

The goal of winter training should be to build a strong aerobic base with lots of high-quality aerobic training below the lactate threshold and improve maximum aerobic capacity with some VO2 training. This means a good training plan should involve a very polarised approach when it comes to intensity

Prioritise sleep in the winter. A lack of motivation for training might be down to a lack of recovery from too little sleep. Setting good habits is the key to performing well. For example, sleeping at the same time, known as sleep consistency, will improve performance. 

The winter time is also a great chance to look at fuelling and setting good foundations for the season. Looking at manipulating the diet to maximise aerobic adaptations can be very beneficial over the winter. For instance, doing fasted runs or fuelling longer slower runs with higher fat meals to reduce the reliance on carbohydrate – only if training for longer distances or endurance events that really warrant this.

Our body loves consistency, taking a sustained block of time away from running can result in a slight loss of fitness. Consistency is also a great way of reducing the chances of injury. When runners form a good routine and train regularly, the chances of injury are lowered as the muscles and tendons are used to the load. If a runner takes a period of rest, they’re going to have to build up the volume and intensity very gradually as it will be likely that their muscles and tendons won’t be able to cope with the load they were previously doing.

An off-season should come when an athlete has been building to a key event for a sustained period and then requires a period of rest and recovery.

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