Your last race of the season is in the rearview window and it’s time to focus on off-season training. Whether you’re a casual runner or someone who is focused on several long-distance races each year, the off-season is a necessary time for building strength, mobility, and for healing up those nagging aches.
I’ve coached countless runners through year-round training and the off-season is the time when, by far, the most mistakes are made. In this article, you’ll learn the top three mistakes runners make in their off-season training.
First, an example of off-season training gone awry. Tara was a runner who liked everything from the fundraiser 5K to full marathons. After her October marathon it was time to switch gears, which for Tara meant starting up three times a week at the local group fitness class that focused primarily on high-intensity interval training (HIIT). These workouts consist of brief, all-out work periods, separated by rest periods that you wish were just a little longer.
In addition, she joined the running group for weekly runs that always challenged her pace a bit. And the pièce de résistance, she got a Peloton bike to cross train on.
Tara enjoyed all of these things, but she also was walking around with a perpetual list of aches and pains that never seemed to resolve. She hadn’t improve her run pace in a few years now. And, it seemed like she got colds and flus more than others as she’d be laid up a few times a year for a week straight. Tara was making several of the most common mistakes runners make. Thankfully, she was able to make some changes and have not only a stellar off-season, but more importantly, a highly successful next running season.
Off-Season Training Mistake #1
Not Improving How Your Body Moves
If you go for a run, your body must flex, extend, and rotate a multitude of joints to accomplish this movement. In addition, your muscles and soft tissues need to be able to generate and withstand the forces that are a part of running. Examples of forces you experience when running are the force of your bodyweight plus gravity hitting the hard pavement, and the force of your muscles contracting to propel you forward.
In order to move your joints and make your tissues capable of handling forces, you need them to work how they are made to work. When they don’t, your body compensates. It will do this by using other joints to assist with the job that a particular joint is made to do. And it will disperse forces into other tissues that aren’t made for the job at hand because the tissues that are made for the job aren’t capable of doing the job entirely.
A common example for runners is when the hips are lacking in their ability to extend, flex, and rotate, the low back, knees, adductors, quads, TFL, piriformis, and IT Bands, can all act up as they try and compensate for the lacking hips.
Use your off-season to step off the injury-recovery-injury hamster wheel once and for all.
Off-Season Training Mistake #2
Too Much High-Intensity Strength Training
It’s not more effective just because it’s harder. In fact, how “hard” a workout is means relatively little about how effective it is. HIIT workouts, circuit training bootcamps, and even some flavors of Crossfit fall into the too hard too frequently category.
There are two very important principles of how muscles, ligaments, and tendons adapt that a runner needs to know and honor in their workouts.
First, the SAID Principle states that the body will make specific adaptations to imposed demands. This means that if you do a squat with dumbbells in your hands today and it’s hard, and you repeat it regularly, your body will take note of that and adapt your body’s tissues to make you stronger, and eventually, the dumbbell squat will be easier to do. Once you’ve gotten better at squatting with those dumbbells, you start the process again with a slightly heavier weight.
However, if you are training too frequently at too great an intensity without adequate recovery time, your body will struggle to adapt. The second principle you need to know is the Zones of Tissue Tolerance. This principle states that there is a level of stress and strain that tissues can tolerate and maintain homeostasis (that is, the tissues can do all the cellular activities that tissues to do remain healthy and functional). This zone is called the ‘zone of homeostasis’.
At the edge of that level of stress and strain is something called the ‘envelope of function’, and just beyond that is a zone called the ‘zone of supraphysiologic overload’. All that means is that the tissues are sustaining more load than they can tolerate and still do all the cellular functions that are necessary to make healthy tissues.
It’s not a bad thing to dip your toe into the zone of supraphysiologic overload, but it’s not an ideal place to hang out frequently or for extended durations. At least, not if you want to avoid body breakdowns and you want to make adaptations towards greater fitness.
Your off-season is for building your body up, not causing it to chronically break down.
Off-Season Training Mistake #3
The Foam Roller Has Become Your Best Friend
If you’re a runner, you’ve probably heard this endlessly – you need to take care of your mobility. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about how you actually maintain and improve your mobility.
Foam rollers can be relaxing to use, but they don’t increase your mobility. Getting massage is a treat, but it also doesn’t increase your mobility. Your mobility will increase when you signal to your body that it should allow you to access more mobility.
Let’s do a simple breakdown of this. You have two kinds of range of motion, passive and active. Both are important to have, but active range of motion is the one that will determine whether or not you can move in the ways you want. And in order to move in the way you want, your brain has to know that it’s safe to move in that way, and it has to know that you’re strong enough to control moving in that way.
In the video below, the amount I can pull my heel to my butt is my passive range of motion. The amount I can hold it there under my own power is my active range of motion.
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Active range of motion is built by strengthening your tissues in what is called their “end ranges”. End ranges are the final point you can get to with your joint motion, which as it turns out, is likely not to be your actual end range. It’s just the point that your brain knows you are strong enough to manage. By building your active range of motion through end range training, you not only improve your mobility, you also get stronger. Double win.
Your off-season is a time to become better, stronger, healthier, and fitter as a runner. Make the most of it by putting into action smarter strategies in your off-season training. You just might hit that PR next spring because of it.