Greetings from the off season! There are only about two months a year I can say that, but at the moment, I am happily basking in the glory of anti-training.
Hanging out with Dad on Father's Day
Although I'm not training for anything specific right now, I am still running a trail race this Saturday. At 8:00 AM, I'll be toeing the line in Elkton, MD at the Big Elk Half Marathon. I am purely running this race for fun, not time, and I could not be more excited about it. I haven't had an honest-to-goodness, long trail run since the Dirty German 50k nearly a month ago, and I can't wait to get my Cascadias dirty on some brand some new trails.
I have a love/hate relationship with the off season. While I savor the free time I gain when I'm not in training mode, I grow to miss the structure and regularity of scheduled training runs. I still log my miles in my Google Doc training spreadsheet, but I don't stress about missing a workout or meeting a certain weekly mileage. The off season is a reward for all the hard work spent during months of training and on race day, and I believe it should be treated with respect.
A weekend off from running, spent near the Hudson River
Although I respect the off season, I've noticed over the last couple of training cycles that I find the urge to keep up a certain weekly mileage in order to prevent "losing" the fitness gained during the past several months. This thought process is inherently flawed, because it ignores the necessity and power of rest between training cycles.
There's a well known stress metaphor that compares the body to a rubber band. If you stress and stretch a rubber band too far, it will eventually snap. Not only is this a literal statement relating to the muscles in our bodies, but it is also a larger and more powerful statement about the physical and mental stress of training.
During training, runners are continually stretching and strengthening our bodies. We purposely stress the body, with intermittent rest days, in order to build endurance. If we time it right, our bodies will be at our strongest on race day, and will carry us through to the finish without breaking. Like a strong, elastic rubber band, after the stress ends and rest begins, the body will snap back to its original state.
However, if we continue to train without resting after a major event, our bodies continue to be stressed, and will eventually reach the breaking point. This "snapping" can come in the form of a physical injury, prolonged fatigue, frequent illness, or mental burnout. These factors often unite to become "overtraining syndrome
I experienced a complete mental burnout after my first marathon in 2010. I had been pushing myself too hard and too fast for over a year, and after the marathon, I wanted nothing to do with running. While I had an amazing experience at the Philly marathon, the continuous training had snapped my rubber band. It was only after an entire year off of running (except for one painful 10 mile race) that I gained the urge to start running again.
Since then, I always check myself during the off season. Any time I feel any resentment towards running or a pain that feels ominous, I take an extra day off. While this approach may result in reduced aerobic fitness and a couple of extra pounds on my body, I know this is the only healthy way to carry myself into the next training cycle.
Even more important than the physical rest though, is the break my mind takes during the off season. While running is my number one stress reliever, I love having time to spend doing other activities, like playing Ultimate Frisbee, without stressing about scheduling 50 miles a week around games. When my brain takes a break from running after several months of hard training, it always comes back to a new training cycle with a hunger to crush mileage week after week.
I am already looking forward to beginning my 50 miler training on July 15. Until then, I will spend most of my free time playing frisbee, celebrating summer with friends and family, and sipping margaritas on the beach in Turks and Caicos. Not a bad way to spend the off season if you ask me.