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A handful of insights from seasoned triathletes on what you can do this off-season to make yourself a better runner next year.
If you’re a bit fatigued from a long season of training and racing, maybe it’s time to put up your feet and relax, or to go on a vacation that doesn’t include swimming, cycling or running.
Taking a break after a long season of training and racing is crucial, especially from a running perspective. It can help your body get over nagging injuries that are accentuated by the high-impact pounding of long runs and speed workouts. It can give your body a clean slate to start retooling for next year, especially when it comes to rebuilding your aerobic base. And, perhaps best of all, it can help you clear your mind of any excess baggage from your recently completed season so that you can focus on new goals for next year.
Here are a handful of insights from seasoned triathletes on what you can do this off-season to make yourself a better runner next year.
Taking time to unwind and stop training (and stop thinking about training) is important. Most coaches recommend a period of at least three weeks after your last race to hang up your superhero costume and live life like a regular (non-triathlete) person. It’s that not you should be a complete slacker and fall into bad habits, but it’s a perfect chance to make up for the everything you missed during your busy season of training and racing such as going to the movies, cleaning out your garage, reading a good book or spending time with your significant other or family.
But that doesn’t mean you should be a total veg when it comes to exercising. Use this time to be healthy in a comfortable, non-obsessive way. Stay active, but don’t think about workouts. Just do what you feel like. That might mean jogging three miles with a friend from work. Or simply running around a local park for 15 to 20 minutes. But don’t wear a watch or keep a training log.
Endurance athletes—triathletes, runners and cyclists—have been known to reward themselves for a long season of sacrificing by indulging in food they did their best to avoid the previous 10 months. For some, that means a bowl of cookie dough ice cream every night after dinner, and to others it means hitting the drive-through for a gooey double cheeseburger, some greasy fries and a thick chocolate shake.
If that’s your thing and it makes you appreciate your long spell of abstinence from that, then go for it. Gaining a few pounds will probably return your body to a more sustainable weight and give your immune system a break. Just be careful to only allow it for a limited time before you get back to business. Enjoy those eating habits while they last, but realize you’ll be a much better runner as you get back to building and fueling with lean protein, whole grains and complex carbs than you will with simple sugars found in junk food, fast food and all of those other treats that taste good but make you feel and perform lousy.
“Every fall I finish the season in great shape, but if I’m not careful I can easily put on 20 pounds in the winter months,” says triathlete Kevin Reinsch, a multiple Ironman finisher. “As the years have had their toll on my joints, it gets harder and harder every spring to burn off the extra fat without getting injured.”
The off-season is the only logical time to rebuild your strength, and that means hitting the weight room for running-specific exercises such as squats and curls as well as reps on a variety of machines that work on primary movers like hamstrings, quads, calves, shoulders and arms. But it should also mean creating better general strength. That’s a term that refers to developing strong muscle groups that will support the primary movers—psoas, trapezius, abs, obliques, lats and glutes. Lastly, you should do exercises that build stability and balance, such as static lunges on a stability disc, or one-legged medicine ball throws.
“Those little muscles are what make you fast and efficient,” says middle-distance running coach Jay Johnson, who co-produced a series of DVDs called “Building a Better Runner: Building from the Ground Up.” “You can’t just work on your primary movers. You’ve got to work on the entire system.”
Telling a triathlete to do some cross-training can seem a bit obscure given that they’re already readily engaged in three sports during the year. But starting a run program in December or January can lead to physical and mental burnout come late summer. Cross-training is one way to avoid that because it allows you to work up a sweat, improve your endurance, build strength and have some fun without thinking too much about what you’re doing. That might mean paddling a kayak, cross-country skiing, snowshoe running, hiking or doing any number of gym workouts from a spin class or core power yoga, to something more dynamic like cardio boxing or The Bar Method.
“I’ve spent the last three winters skiing my ass off and it has paid great dividends,” says top age grouper Kevin Dessart, who has raced in the Ironman World Championships several times. “While it’s not specific for improving your running, it improves everything. I specifically make sure I do some hill work on the skis, which both kicks your ass aerobically and builds strength. I’ve never done anything that is such a complete workout from head to toe. It also keeps you fresh, as I know during the summer most tri geeks like me do more than enough biking and running, and skiing is a great diversion from this. I always compare it to trail running, because you are usually in the trees, but there is less pounding and the scenery is beautiful.”
Just Run, Baby!
When you start running again, ease back into it with a plan. You’ll definitely want to start logging miles on long, slow runs, but don’t get lulled into running only long and slow just because that’s what you’ve always done or that’s what many training plans suggest. Build up your mileage slowly after your hiatus as to avoid overuse injuries or fatigue. But also mix in a few things that will engage your fast-twitch muscles, perhaps in the form of short and moderately fast tempo runs, long runs with a negative split, or a medium-length progression run that starts slow and increases in pace every two miles or so.
Throw in two or three easy buildup strides a couple of times a week just to get some snap into your legs. Also, start early with dynamic warm-up drills that initiate efficient running form and you’ll be well on your way to building a new you out on the run. Keep everything under control until the springtime, saving hard efforts and fast intervals for later, but make sure you get some variety in your training, says Mike Ricci, a USA Triathlon Level III coach and head coach of D3 Multisport in Colorado.
“The one thing you can do to make yourself better is to run consistently,” Ricci says. “Even though it’s winter and it’s cold outside, you can run on a treadmill. There is no reason not to run in the winter—you can even create a fun hill workout on the treadmill by playing with different speeds and grades. You don’t need to kill yourself, but there is a lot you can do in the winter to make yourself a better runner next summer.”