Earn Your Breakthrough in the Off-Season

The off-season is an opportunity. Capture it.

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It’s easy to think of the winter off-season as a time to sit next to a fire with a frothy cup of hot chocolate, reminiscing about adventures you had before the ice times. Part of the problem might be the name. “Off”-season implies that it’s time off, a vacation from training after a year of hard work. But if you punch out your timecard in November or December, you may find you took two steps forward only to take 1.9 steps back. You’ll be pretty much back where you started the previous year.

Instead of thinking of the winter as “off”-season, think of it as “reset”-season. Reset-season is a time to rejuvenate for the next year while laying down an indestructible fitness base. How you structure your reset-season depends on your goals and background. Here are four methods to keep moving forward during winter.

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1. Heal and steel

After your hardest training or racing is complete, begin by recovering completely for one to four weeks (or even longer). Then, enjoy a winter of unstructured aerobic activity, with running, skiing, hiking, and/or biking.

This period of rest followed by unstructured running and cross-training lets the body achieve long-term recovery. Hormone levels return to healthy levels, and small injuries resolve. Then, you build back stronger and more durable.

It also provides a psychological break for people who are over-stressed during heavy training blocks.

Who it’s for:

An athlete who pushed close to his or her limits in training and racing, leaving their bodies a bit tired and minds a bit worn out. Most of the pro athletes I coach use this semi-structured approach during winter, with many mixing in ski-mountaineering. This approach works best for runners who are close to their long-term potential and risk stagnating without a reset period. However, it can also work for anyone who is at risk of burn out. Motivation in the daily process is essential for any runner, so think about what is best for your long-term relationship with running. If you need down time to keep your fire burning, take it.

How it works:

Don’t train until a fire burns within your brain to get back out on the trails doing aerobic activity. At that point, aim for consistent running four to five times per week. At least two times per week, add hill strides early in the season, and flatter strides later on. Fill the rest of the week with outdoor adventures that you find fun.

Part of the goal for experienced athletes who are close to their long-term potential is to de-train and lose some fitness, which may let them reach a higher peak later, avoiding stagnation. Meanwhile, most athletes relatively new to running should keep training or use one of the approaches below, so as not to regress too much.

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2. Trial of Miles

When no races are on the calendar in the immediate future, gradually increase your total training volume, aiming to reach new weekly-mileage heights.

The trial of miles improves running economy, aerobic development and just about every other biomechanical, neuromuscular and cardiovascular variable that goes into making a strong runner.

Who it’s for:

An athlete that has not maxed out their total mileage in the past and thinks they can do more while staying healthy and motivated in the context of their lives. The trial of miles is my favorite approach for athletes who are getting faster rapidly, but might not be running more than 50 miles per week for men or 35 miles per week for women.

How it works:

Start with a weekly volume goal around your current training level, and increase progressively over time. Begin each run at aerobic and conversational efforts, with the option to end faster on days you feel good. For more advanced athletes, add strides in the second half of runs a couple times per week. You can add fun non-running activities too; just make sure your mileage drops if you’re doing something like skiing, which adds a large amount of stress. Since you aren’t worried about racing this time of year, the trial of miles lets you build without the enhanced stress from harder workouts

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3. Need for Speed

With most long trail races and adventures are months away, use the reset-season to develop top-end speed.

Training for a fast mile or 5K primarily improves running economy, which will make every pace feel easier, even slower ones during long trail adventures. A rising running economy tide raises all fitness ships—once you unlock your speed, your potential skyrockets at every distance

Who it’s for:

An athlete that rarely does focused speed work, or who is time-constrained and wants to try something new. Mile or 5K training is my chosen approach for athletes who like to race long and focus on longer adventures most of the year. Since the time commitment for speed work is lower, it’s also great for busy people who want logistics to be simpler during the winter, yet still want to improve.

How it works:

Get faster by using a mix of fast strides and short intervals in the context of shorter runs. Start by building consistency, with easy runs five or six times per week. Two times during your easy runs, do 4 to 10 x 20 to 30 seconds fast (around mile race effort or a bit faster) with one to two minutes recovery between. Then, once a week, do short intervals with equal or greater recovery, like 10 x 1 minute fast/2 minutes easy or 6 x 2 minutes fast/2 minutes easy, with total interval time being no more than 15 or 20 minutes, and each interval paced around how fast you could race an event that was all the planned intervals at once (so 10 x 1 minute fast would require a 10-minute race effort on the intervals). Focus on controlled, smooth speed, which is more sustainable than fast and flailing speed, which can increase injury risk.

4. Go-and-Flow

Keep doing what you’re doing, building progressively as you go

Who it’s for:

An athlete who is progressing over time (or coming back from injury) and for whom the season shift doesn’t need to coincide with a change in approach

How it works:

Keep doing what is working, only adjusting when you start to physically or mentally stagnate

Putting it All Together

In practice, a lot of athletes can benefit from mixing all these approaches. Start by ensuring you are fully recovered, mentally and physically, through the Heal-and-Steel approach. Then, rebuild your aerobic base if you think that’s a weakness, increasing miles if you can, through the Trial-of-Miles approach. If you feel like speed is your weakness, jump into the Need-for-Speed approach. Meanwhile, if you’re rocking and rolling, keep on shredding as planned with the Go-and-Flow approach.

Breakthroughs are earned when no one is watching. The off-season is the time to earn your breakthrough.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.

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