Thursday, December 18, 2008
The off season.
GZ asked on his blog "what constitutes an off season?". Through the years I have come to understand that the off season is that which your entire year hinges it's results on. It all starts with a starting point and that needs to be that mythical concept called rest. I tend be a fairly intense trainer and I am always at my limits- it's my favorite place in the world. What allows me to do that though is my ability to truly "shut it down" after a hard period of training. I am in the middle (hopefully the back end) of a rest break that is brain imposed. This will be my first real break in training since I took up running 2 years ago and I think that part of my failures in the marathon have come from not taking a real off season. With the Ironman I always took a month off after Kona. When I say "off", I mean OFF. Lay on the couch or most often times I got a job. Making donuts at 3am. Working the produce section at Safeway. You know, big money stuff. A couple of years I remember coming off Kona with a high (the year I placed 16Th and 13Th) and started back training almost immediately and both those times I didn't do well the following year. The two years that I did OK were years that I took a month completely off in the previous November.
A rest break needs to be planned according to the previous year's effort. If you put in consistent hard training from January to October, then you need a long rest. 4 weeks is not enough time to lose all your fitness and it allows you to heal both physically and mentally. In order to train hard enough in the middle and latter parts of the year you have to start with a fresh body and mind. I tell my athletes to take 1 week off after their last race of the year... then I get to argue and try to pull their OCD teeth trying to get them to actually do it. If I thought they would do it- I would have them take 2 weeks completely off. If they did an Ironman, 4 weeks. When I first started to run with Alan Culpepper he was training for the marathon. I remember meeting up with him after he took a full 2 weeks off completely from running or any exercise... later that Spring he ran a 2:11 at Boston. I remember hearing a story about Paul Tergat and how he gains 15 pounds in the month he takes off every year. Lance Armstrong- the supreme technician- takes a long break in the Winter too (but cycling is different). A successful race doesn't happen as you break the tape, it happens in the 10 months leading up to the race. It may be folly for us to start a focused build towards a key race when we are already tired and have been focusing for several months.
I don't necessarily believe that everyone should lay on the couch or drink in a hot tub (although I would recommend it) after every season. But if you fell short of your goals it may not be because you didn't training hard enough, it might be because you didn't rest enough. This subject is one that, if there was such a thing, I would have my PhD in. As I look forward to next year I haven't even considered trying to regain lost fitness until January. And that is a good approach to take in the off season. When you exercise (not train) you need to go in to it with the idea that what you are doing is not focused towards gaining fitness. It's for fun. If you start to think about your races next season and start working towards them then you are no longer in your off season. There is research (and anecdotal evidence) to suggest that 20 weeks is the amount of time you need to truly exploit your fitness for a marathon. This is assuming you are coming into that 20 weeks with just a moderate amount of fitness, and a moderate amount of fitness for most of us is simple to obtain. For a 10k it is only ~16 weeks (because of the increased intensity)! Once you try to focus longer than 20 or 16 weeks then you experience the law of diminishing returns and you start to actually lose fitness.
We are all unique in how our bodies respond to training. Duh. The above concept is part of what my problem has been with the marathon. I try to focus for too long. I train with the idea in my head that I am going to break and bend my body as much as I can until is gets strong. In 20 weeks I can get in over 2000 miles and I think I peak somewhere around 1600 miles.
I vacillate hourly between what I think I need to do... high mileage, low mileage, high intensity, low intensity, fat free, fatty. I have already planned out the months between January and October with all of my training, yes, I am a dork. I tried to take a Zen approach when I was penciling in all the details and I tried to let my mind gravitate towards what it knows is the right approach for me. Not that I needed to, but I also looked back at the 20 weeks leading up to every marathon and tried to look at what I was doing from a coach's perspective. If I were to try and guide a runner towards my own goals, what would he/ she need to do in the year leading up to that day? I thought- "they need to rest". So I'm resting. For me, coming in to a 16 week/ 10k build up (Bolder Boulder will be my early "A" race) not even near peak condition is crucial for me. What I also saw in my training logs wasn't an error in my intensity or my volume, it was simply the length of time (think months) that I tried to hold it. Once that 16 week window opens in February I will be rested, I will have a moderate amount of base fitness, and I will have a fresh and sharp mind. In that 16 weeks I should be able to beat myself down and get back up every time.