Monday, February 22, 2010

Learning to Love the Off-Season

My last serious race of 2009 was a 15K at the end of October. This was the final run in a season that had begun in February 2009 with an indoor triathlon and had included a September half marathon – my longest race to date, and my goal race for 2009. I had been training, in effect, for eight or nine months.

I remember sitting in a restaurant with my husband/coach and my running buddies, thinking about the run I’d just had, and trying to decide what to do next. And then I realized – there was nothing new on the horizon. No races, no fun runs, no clinics. Just weeks and weeks of blank space. As some of you who know me are acutely aware, I’m a planner. My life is mapped, not just in weeks or days, but often in hours. So the prospect of an empty November, December, January, and February was a bleak one. Yet I was also incredibly tired. Not merely from the race I’d just finished, but from the months of training for various races. I’d experienced the cycle of focused build-up to a race, putting all I had into the completion of that race, and then resting and readying for another race repeatedly for months. My desire to race had mostly disappeared, but I didn’t know how to function as an athlete without constantly being in training for something.

A few days later, I sat down with my coach and asked him what I should be training for next. “Nothing,” he replied, “This is your off-season.”

“Off-season? So then how many miles a week should I be running?”

“Well, to start with, none. Your legs need a break, first. Then we need to start working on changing your stride. You’ll have to build back up to running long distances again.”

NONE?! No running? For how long? Why am I being punished like this?

I couldn’t believe it and I didn’t understand it. Immediately, I became resistant. The winter months stretched before me punctuated by the major holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years – harbingers of overwork, overeating and overspending. Running had been my release valve for much of that stress, and now it was being taken away from me.

During November, I ignored the off-season. I continued to run at the same mileage I had been running in September and October. I pushed past niggling shin pain into December, determined to run the holidays away, to make it to spring unscathed. Finally, three days before I was supposed to drive down to see my family for a week during the Christmas holiday, my legs forced me to slow down. The pain in my shins was now apparent with each step, and a trainer told me that I was headed down the road to another stress fracture if I didn’t take a break. So I did. Because I had to.

I realized that, whether I liked taking a break or not, my body needed to rest. Since I couldn’t run for a few weeks, I began to work on the muscles that would be used when I began running again. I took time during each workout to stretch and strengthen those areas. The break from running also gave my mind a chance to rest and than reflect on the season I’d had. I began to pick out trends, both in my races and my training. Recurring injuries or setbacks became more apparent, as did areas of improvement. When I took my first run again, in early January, not only did my legs feel fresh, but my mind was relaxed and open.

I had been seeing running in terms of calendar boxes – a checkmark by the date, the number of miles written in the top corner, the race day circled in red at the end of the month. I’d forgotten the infinitely unfurling path, the unbounded horizon, the personal potential – the inner motivators.

What the off-season has done is make me remember the aspects of running that are pushed aside in the heat of training; that, frankly, have to be pushed aside to make room for intensity and ambition. From a physical standpoint, the off-season is necessary for the athlete so that they can make the mechanical adjustments that will improve their performance during the training months.

So, if the idea of an off-season, or even a break from your sport due to injury fills you with dread, remember that time off is not only a beneficial part of an athlete’s season – it is a necessary part.

It’s not indefinite, either. Last week, my coach told me that we’d be starting up spring workouts in the next few weeks. When my response to this was, “Aw, really? So soon?” I knew the off-season had rested me enough. It was time to get back to work before I got too comfortable.

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