In Defense of Not Running in the Off Season (And How It Will Affect You When You Come Back in the Spring)
When it comes to running, the body can only handle so much hard training before it starts to break down. Mentally and physically. Everyone from professionals and elite runners to mother runners, high school track and cross-country athletes need to take a break every now and then. In fact, stepping away from running for a bit has proven time and again to actually help your running performance. And there’s no better time than during the off season in the cold winter months to take some time to let your body and mind recover.
If you’re scared of how taking off during the off season might negatively impact your training when you start back up in the spring, don’t be! Below, we will discuss why you should give yourself a break and what you can expect when you return to running after ample time away.
Recovery Time is Necessary
We put ourselves through a lot. Even if you’re not doing intense workouts laid out to you by a running coach or if you did not really participate in a lot of hard half and full marathons during your season, if you are running even somewhat consistently, you are pushing your body to grow stronger even when it doesn’t want to – which will always lead to at least a little bit of fatigue.
Humans can handle fatigue relatively well. We were made to be able to endure long bouts of hard periods to help us survive. But at some point, after weeks and months of early mornings, little sleep, not enough rest and recovery for our muscles, and the mental battle of fighting running and race anxiety, we start to lose focus and break down. Physically, you might start to notice that your paces and times are just off or that it is harder and harder for you to hit your goal times than it used to be. Or perhaps it hurts more during those workouts, and that the aftermath of recovery takes longer and you feel pushed to your limits.
Mentally, the struggle might be even worse. It takes a lot of focus to be a runner. Racing and hitting those workouts hard takes a lot of brain space. We have to stay focused despite whatever might get thrown at us – bad weather, minor aches and pains, and anything else going on in our personal, family, or work lives. Even if you’re not racing, it takes focus to talk yourself into getting out and starting your run each day, and even more focus to stick it out.
Bottom line is, after months of that, not only are you probably desiring a break, but it’d likely be healthy for you to take one. And when you step away from running for an extended amount of time, you’ll help yourself to come back in the spring even more motivated! Distance really does make the heart grow fonder, and running is no exception!
Injuries are another reason to take some time off – even if you don’t have one. Some of the most common running injuries that plague runners for extended periods of time are overuse injuries. These are injuries that result over time from the gradual wear and tear of running on your bones, joints, muscles, and tendons. If you give your body time off, it has enough time to recover properly. But if you continue grinding away, so too will your body.
Some of the most common overuse injuries are “runner’s knee,” stress fractures, and tendonitis. If you’re already feeling the pains of an overuse injury, definitely don’t wait until the off season to take a break – do it now. But even if your minor aches and pains are seemingly so minimal that it you’re not sure if they really merit an “injury” status yet, chances are you will still greatly benefit from letting them rest. And it’ll help you avoid injury in the long run. Come spring, your joints, bones, and muscles will be fresh and rested.
Time away from running might result in you finding your interest in other things that end up really making your life feel rich and full. You might choose to supplement your time with another non-exercise related hobby that you have been itching to try, and find out that you actually have quite a hidden talent that could lead to even more.
Or, if you’re just not keen on quitting exercise altogether, more power to you. Supplement your runs with zero impact activities. Break out the goggles and start swimming laps at your local indoor pool, pick up a spin class here and there, or maybe just go on some leisurely walks around your neighborhood. In fact, you should actually be incorporating cross-training into your running routine year round. Numerous studies show the benefit of cross-training not only to help keep you injury free, but to actually boost your running performance and help make you stronger and faster. If you’ve been dragging your feet to start cross-training, then the off-season is the perfect time.
Weight & Nutrition
Body fat and race weight is another factor to seriously consider, especially elite athletes or those of you who train extremely hard during the season. We’ve all heard about the “ideal race weight,” and that’s usually different for everyone. However, most folks tend to believe that the leaner they are, the faster they will be, which makes sense. Less weight means you have less body to move around. But this is true only to a certain point.
Being too thin and depriving yourself of too much nutrients can lead to serious health complications that go beyond just not feeling strong enough to run. If you are racing at an extremely low body fat, you absolutely need to take some time away to get that body fat percentage back up. Otherwise, your body might start shutting down important functions to save energy and avoid starvation mode.
It’s good to indulge in those treats that you forwent during your training. Enjoy yourself appropriately and don’t worry about the possible weight gain. Your body is smart and it will do what it needs to do with the excess calories – and if that means restoring some of the body fat you whittled away during the season, then that’s a good thing! You’ll likely end up coming back stronger in the spring.