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The Why and How of Maintaining your Fitness in the Off-Season

posted by Greg Wieczorek
The Why and How of Maintaining your Fitness in the Off-Season

At this point in the year many runners have recently completed their goal fall race and are enjoying certain lifestyle changes that come with not having a big event that is fast approaching – perhaps a few more sleep-ins, social outings, or just the relief of not having to juggle so much training amongst your numerous other priorities.  It’s an opportunity to rest up and recharge your batteries after months of hard work and focus.  While some scheduled down-time is an important component of any big-picture training plan, wouldn’t it be a shame if January rolled around and you were noticeably less fit than you were a few weeks ago when you were peaking for your goal race?  This article discusses the risks of being overly slack and offers some training advice that will allow you to enjoy the holiday season and still be ready to “hit the ground running” in the new year when it’s time to once again shift your focus towards a spring goal.

Be lazy now, be limping later

Maura Connolly-Wieczorek, registered physiotherapist and owner of Bluenose Physiotherapy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, typically sees a spike in patients towards the end of January.   These are often New Year’s Resolution people who had the best of intentions when they started a rigorous exercise regimen right after the holidays, but their musculoskeletal system wasn’t prepared for the shock it was about to be subjected to.  Some runners find themselves in this situation as well, thinking they can pick their training up right where they left off in October, and finding out in a hurry that the adaptations they developed in the fall weren’t sustainable while on the sofa or in the buffet line throughout December.  What a terrible demotivator when yesterday’s run has left you sore and tired.  Wouldn’t it be a lot more fun to continue to build on the fitness you had from the fall?  Below are some general guidelines I follow when preparing November/December training programs for the adult runners I work with through Project PB:

Mileage targets

When setting weekly mileage targets, I generally recommend aiming for about 60-75% of your max mileage from the previous training cycle.  (Note, however, that if you’re feeling healthy, strong, and motivated, it’s ok to push the upper ceiling of this range up a few percentage points.)  So if your biggest weeks this past September hovered around 90kms, shoot for the 54km – 68km/week range over the next month or two.  The “10% rule” is also a good guideline to follow, so if you run 55km next week, don’t increase your mileage the following week by more than 10% by running upwards of 60km.  Planning for, say, 55km, 60km, 65km, 60km, 65km, 68km over six successive weeks is a nice progression.  A similar ratio holds true for your weekly long run.  If you’re a marathoner who had a few 20+ milers in preparation for your fall marathon, gradually build your long run back up to about 15 miles by the end of December.  The goal of this is to ensure that when you start “Week 1” of your spring training program, it’s business as usual, rather than a recipe for soreness and fatigue.  The 60-75% ratio will often require one less day of running per week than you’ve been accustomed to, which allows for alternative cross training activities that you may have otherwise foregone in lieu of more running.  This can be a fun change and an opportunity for preventative injury maintenance.   Running 60-75% of what you were previously used to should have a minimal impact on the rest of your life, so be sure to enjoy your 25-40% more spare time as you see fit!

Click on the photo to learn why every runner should keep a training log

Quality workouts

Many people don’t like the stress and pressure of trying to hit the same splits on workouts they did when they were in peak form.  The off-season is a great time to incorporate workouts into your week that you may not otherwise perform during a typical training cycle.  You can take the pressure off yourself by doing a workout where you have no basis of comparison to what you’ve done recently.  Some common examples include:

  • Fartleks – A good Fartlek workout is one that includes a moderate warm-up and is 20 – 40 minutes in duration with at least half of that time running “fast”.  I recommend my athletes run the bursts at about 10km race effort for anywhere between 2 and 5 minutes, followed by a recovery jog that is 50-75% of the time of the hard effort.  4 to 6 intervals are suitable for most athletes.  A well-trained runner will likely find 5-6 sets of (4 mins “hard” with 2 min jog recovery) to be a satisfying workout.  This type of workout provides a stamina stimulus without you being overly concerned about what pace per km you’re running.
  • Hills – Performing hill repeats can build strength and power, as well as expand aerobic capacity.  If you don’t want to worry about how you stack up against yourself from a few months ago, turn your watch off or find a different hill. Learn more about Hill Repeats!
  • “Native Canadian” file passing – This is a fun workout if you have a small group of 5 – 8 people that you regularly train with.  After a moderate warm-up, run in single file in your aerobic zone.  The person who is at the end of the line will surge to the front of the line and resume their aerobic pace.  There will now be someone new at the end of the line who will surge to the front and resume the aerobic pace.  The cycle will be repeated until everyone has surged for a set number of intervals, or for a pre-determined time or distance.

“Checking-in” workouts

Every few weeks it’s a good idea to run a similar workout to what you performed during your race build-up.  Whether it’s a set of 5 x 1 km or a 6 km tempo run, this will provide a decent gauge of where things are at.  Oftentimes you’ll surprise yourself at how close you are to your previous efforts, which is very encouraging considering that you’re not training as hard.  Don’t worry though if your paces are off – it’s not like you have a big race coming up!

Final words

For those of you who are motivated to improve upon your times from last season, this will typically require building upon your previous training cycle.  This is much easier to do if you start off at a comparable fitness level to where you recently built to. You worked hard over the summer to run your best this fall, and I hope this article provides some ideas on how to keep running fun over the winter so you give yourself the best opportunity for success in the New Year.

About the Author: Greg Wieczorek is a Chartered Accountant and 2:25 marathoner residing in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has coached his wife Maura from a 4:17 marathon debut to a personal best of 2:58 and helps others maximize their road race potential through his online coaching service Project PB.


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