Winding Down Your Season and Planning a Rest Break | September 23, 2009
Since discovering ultrarunning, you’ve never been so pumped up and motivated in your whole life. You trained like mad all spring and summer, and then you climbed the mountain. You knocked off your first ultra. Maybe you knocked off a string of them. Congratulations! But winter is setting in, it’s gotten cold outside, the days are shorter, and soon you’ll be facing vistas of ice and snow where it used to be all sunshine and love. So what’s next?
Consider doing what many experienced ultrarunners do: throttle back your training routine and take a rest break over the winter months. The break can last for just a few weeks, say between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or it can stretch into months, all the way from November through February for example. Adding a seasonal break to your ultrarunning repertoire makes a lot of sense. You give your body an extended period to rebuild and repair the muscles and tissues you might have overtaxed during your intensive training period. You also give yourself a mental break from the pressure to run more and more miles at higher and higher intensity. You derail the tendency to keep training until you’ve injured yourself and you avoid experiencing overtraining syndrome. You might even be laying the foundation for many years of enjoyable ultrarunning versus overdoing the sport until you experience burnout.
Winter is, of course, a natural time to reduce your running load. The weather is often uncooperative, having less daylight makes it harder to fit in a workout, there are fewer organized running events, and there is a string of holidays to get ready for and thoroughly enjoy. It is important, though, not to go totally couch potato. You’ll want to maintain a reasonable level of fitness and preserve a base that you can build on once you resume more serious training. A good rule of thumb for your “restful” training period is to cut your weekly mileage in half and skip high intensity tempo runs and speedwork altogether. If you typically do a long run every weekend, take a weekend or two off between long runs. When you do go long, cut yourself lots of slack. Walk when you feel like it. Quit before you have to reach too deep into the well. Keep in mind you are just trying to preserve a certain level of fitness; you’re not in a building or improving phase.
Another option is to go to a cross training routine, or mix some cross training into your skinnied down running schedule. Swimming, biking, weight lifting, racquetball, or almost any other type of exercise has the advantage of keeping your fitness level up while not overtaxing the muscles that are heavily engaged when you do nothing but run. Swimming and biking are particularly good in this respect because they are non-loadbearing exercises, unlike running which places special demands on your feet, ankles, knees and hips. Cross training also lets you focus on a different set of skills, gets you out with a different set of friends, and puts you in a mindset other than the running mindset, which can keep your running mindset from becoming stale and less compelling. You can even use cross training to target certain weaknesses in your overall fitness and come out of your running break even better prepared for the pure running training. For example, swimming can boost your upper body strength, weight lifting can be used to strengthen your core, and biking can improve your stamina.
The holidays can be a challenge for you as you try to find that balance between maintaining fitness and totally slipping out of shape. There are outsized demands on your time: setting up for the holidays, shopping, traveling, parties, hosting family members, cooking, cleaning. What running you do will have to be sequenced in with all these other activities. Look for running possibilities that are unique to that time of year. Do any of your relatives run? You can enjoy being with your relatives but still get in a run if you plan a fun run as part of the family get together. You might discover a good holiday running partner in a distant relative that you rarely see. Check to see if there are any running events in your area or the area you’re traveling to for your holiday celebration. Having an organized run on your calendar will help keep you motivated to maintain your running. You might be able to combine your family trip with a race that you might otherwise never have considered. If there are no organized events in the area where you’re traveling, you can still chart out a long run and spend an afternoon touring new locations.
You could even plan a special trip to a part of the country like Florida or California where the race calendar stays pretty robust even through the winter months. The race becomes an “excuse” for traveling and seeing a new part of the country. You can treat the race itself as a fun run knowing that you are not expected to be at your peak performance.
When your break is over, you should find yourself refreshed both mentally and physically, ready to set new goals and ramp up your training to meet those goals. Be sure to build in a transition period that takes you from your rest break to the resumption of serious, intensive training. Just like when you were first starting out, you should increase your weekly mileage gradually. You should also increase the intensity of your workouts little by little and make sure you rest for a day or two after a hard workout or a long run.
Many ultrarunners feel that longevity in the sport goes hand in hand with following a “hard-easy” approach. A hard workout day is followed by an easy day. A hard race is followed by an easy recovery period. Three hard weeks of training is followed by an easy week. A seasonal rest break just extends this formula for success over a year long period. Give it a try and see if it works for you.