I just finished my last race of the season. I planned a good season ending double whammy of back to back weekends of racing, hoping that would allow me to fall idle for a few days following, during a vacation in the sun of Oahu, doing pretty much nothing but hanging out with my family on the beach. I am notoriously bad about taking a break. I have whole years in my track record where I ran year round and raced 4 seasons: indoor track and International road running in the spring; triathlon, duathlon and North American road running in the summer; road running and cross country in the fall and holding that fitness through to more racing in January: repeat. So many times I have ‘finished’ my year with a marathon and then kept training hard through the Christmas Holidays, being too antsy to stay indoors, too fit to stop. Too many times these seasons have eventually ended with injury, colds, burnout, and plateaus. How to balance the love for running and being outside with the need for recovery has become a lifetime mission.
Enter the double whammy: my last 2 races of 2011 were an invigorating mixture of everything I like about running and racing: first I had the National Cross Country Championships in Vancouver. Before this race, I calculated that this would be my 16th start in a 25 year span of racing Senior Nationals, since coming 5th in my first go around when I was 19. This year was the epitome of true cross country test: 7km of muddy track, puddles, hard corners, short hills, wind and rain. After the women took out the opening km in 3:05 or something equally crowd thinning, I found myself in 20th, after which I chiseled away for the next 3 laps, moving solidly up the field with my endurance, and moving into 11th at the end. Within minutes of the end of the race I was freezing, teeth chattering and hands shaking uncontrollably.
A week later I was in the warm and humid environment of Hawaii, to race the XTerra World Trail Running World Championships on Oahu. This was my first go at a trail race and what an invigorating introduction. I mean the hills were just so steep and long it was not like ‘normal’ running there were few areas to get into strong tempo but I soon learned to absorb the rhythm of the trail and to find efficiency as often as possible. The single track sections along the ridges were truly awesome and the downhill plummet through the jungle was insane and hilarious. I almost wiped out at least 5 times, just tripping and crashing and sliding: never felt so ungraceful as a runner! The crazy no holds barred free fall of running put me in 2nd overall, not a bad day in the jungle.
It was an awesome day as a family too: Maia ran her first 5k, and hardest race to date and finished 2nd in her age category, while Ross raced the kid’s run, got taken down by another excited competitor, but got up and kept running. The Kuola Ranch race site was magnificent and by early afternoon we were heading back to the North shore surf and I was ready to start my ‘off season”.
I know myself pretty well. I can bank on having trashed legs for at least a week after a half marathon, and I figured a hilly 21k would take even more out of my body and give me a good reason not to run for a week. I spent the next few days on island time, relaxing with my family, look at ‘Honu’ or turtles on the beach, building sand castles. I did two short little recovery runs, a little swimming (er, looking at coral and fish: that counts right?), but mainly took the opportunity to turn off the training clock.
Some athletes look to the off season with relief, fantasizing about the chance to leave the bike in the garage for a while, a break from the early morning swim workouts and a slacker schedule in which to catch up with non triathlete friends. Others look at the off season with a mix of dread and anxiety. The off season stretches ahead like one long rainy day; with no planned workouts, no races and a lack of structure, they worry about gaining weight, losing fitness, and losing their minds.
For both athlete mentalities, and everything in between these extremes, understanding the purpose of the off season helps in maintaining sanity and a sense of continuity in one’s training. Viewed in the context of the full season, the off season period or the rest phase is a necessary and important part of athlete development. The off season technically links one season to the next and theoretically provides a period of regeneration that allows the next season to be a build on the previous one. It is easier to maintain motivation and a sense of purpose throughout the off season if athletes are aware of the distinct and crucial purpose that it serves in their overall progression.
Without an off season there is no long sustained period of rest and over time, neither the body nor the mind will be able to recover from the rigors and stress of training and racing. The result is either burn out, injury or inexplicable feelings of fatigue and exhaustion, not unlike sleep deprivation. Every athlete has a varying tolerance for season duration, but very few athletes can continually perform well for periods of over ten months without some sort of off season or down time.
Since our racing season usually is slotted into spring, summer and fall racing, the winter is the natural time of year in which to take a break. A six to eight week period anywhere from November through early February, when the weather is also typically at the coldest and wettest (at least in northern US and most of Canada), and also coinciding with the winter holidays is the most obvious time. Taking your break when the kids get out of school for Christmas can be an easy way to do it. Whether you love or hate the off season period, the following pointers will help you make the most of the winter downtime and allow you to make a positive bridge from this season into next.
Commit yourself to the off season and to understanding why you are taking a break. Moving from competitive phase to rest phase is probably the most radical change between all the season’s macrocycles. Preparatory to pre-competition and pre-competition to competition are relatively flowing adjustments. Going from training for and completing Hawaii Ironman to lying on the couch watching some reality TV show based on extreme sports is a huge leap. If you are one of the athletes that find it hard to stop training and working hard, embrace the idea that you are being good to yourself by taking a break and reiterate to yourself often that your body needs the rest in order to absorb all the training and racing from the season. Often our minds repeat words and stories that are habitual and not even true, so if your story line goes something like this; “I am losing all my fitness. I am gaining weight. I am getting slow”, replace with the affirmative such as, “My body is resting and becoming stronger for next season. I am a smart athlete and I train smart too”. In repeating these new true phrases, you will start to believe them and will have developed a new skill at the same time: the power to change your thought process.
Understanding why we are doing what we are doing, in training as in all our work and life gives us a greater sense of purpose and ability to commit. It is good to remember that the end result of the off season is not to be fitter but to be fresh and excited to begin a new season.
During your off season, you will at first likely notice the lack of instant gratification that comes from twice daily training sessions. One of the most difficult aspects of rest, injury or pregnancy in sports, is this reduction in the almost clockwork feedback. The off season can initially come as a sense of let down or anti-climax to feelings of gratification we have received all season long from our most intense training sessions. In essence, athletes get ‘addicted’ to physical and emotional feedback: the feeling of well-being and accomplishment that accompanies working out. Removing that sensation leaves a void. Although it will seem difficult to deal with, remember that the inactivity shock will wear off and in seven to ten days or less you will have normalized to the current program of restful recovery training or sheer non-activity.
Inspiration can be a powerful motivator at this time of year. If you feel committed to and inspired by what you are doing, you are more likely to have a sense of purpose in your path. In the off season, without the continual feedback from workouts and coaches, you will have to develop an intrinsic sense of motivation that is derived from being inspired by your own life. Inspiration comes from a deep place in our soul, and is truly connected to who we believe ourselves to be and what we see ourselves doing in the future.
We can find inspiration everywhere and anywhere, so intrinsic is it to life. Films and sporting events, books and music can all carry inspiration. Inspirational speakers are different than motivational speakers in that they speak to a universal human trait that is part of our very souls. Motivational speakers, while also relevant to sport and business, speak to tactics and methods of achieving that greatness. Find ways to be inspired this winter: choose movies and books about greatness, about people doing amazing things, about people who have found ways to succeed under difficult circumstances. I can well remember the first time I saw “Chariots of Fire”. The music, the imagery, the message of passion spoke to many of us. Write a journal about how you achieved personal bests in your last season, about the goals you reached and the ways in which you found success in small ways. Be inspired by your own life and the lives of people around you and you will build a sense of motivation that will rise out of the winter skies come time to train again.
Here are four books that I have found inspiring at various times in my life:
The River Why, David James Duncan
No Shortcuts to the Top, Ed Viesturs
A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle
In Pursuit of Excellence, Terry Orlick
Here are some things that help me come back from my winter holiday feeling fresh and rejuvenated, and ready to train again when the kids go back to school.
1. Eat well as a commitment to your health, not just your sport: appreciate the holiday treats in moderation and bask in the chance to eat without worrying about training on a full stomach, but still eat well.
2. Don’t just stop training, but take out the mental stress. Keep some minimal race pace simulation in swimming, cycling and running. Consider taking a yoga class over the winter to keep you strong and flexible while you are taking your rest. Yoga is rejuvenating and is refreshingly non-competitive. Most athletes gain tremendous benefit from the breathing and focusing techniques.
3. Do some research on equipment upgrades and what is new and cutting edge. Organizing this now allows you more time to focus on simply training later.
4. Review your last season’s goals (that you wrote down at the start of the season: remember?) and reflect on your progress. Don’t set your new goals just yet, but this will get your mind turning over with pertinent information for forming next season’s goals.
5. Stop and smell the roses. Have you ever really looked around while you are running? Go for your easy runs without the watch and enjoy the chance to just let go of having to run a certain pace. Let your mind wander (sometimes I write whole chapters of my imaginary memoirs on a 45 minute run). The point is to get in touch with the activity and the process, the sheer act of running or riding or swimming, or even hiking, skiing or skating, without the attachment to progress and outcome that the racing season brings.
Here’s to you being inspired and ready in 2012