How Taking Time Off Got Me Injured
In the past several years, I've tried a few different approaches to the offseason break, and each have had varying levels of success. It's tough to achieve that balance between allowing your body and mind to recover without digging yourself into a hole you can't train out of later. You must maintain a certain equilibrium so that you're staying active, but not taxing yourself mentally and physically.
But there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to the offseason, so it's important to find out what works best for you. Following last year's offseason, I began to reconsider mine.
After a successful 2015, I wanted to unwind before I started a strenuous and spirited attempt to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. During two weeks of backpacking in Southeast Asia, I suppressed urges to exercise while taking in the sights and enjoying the culture. Upon my return, my wisdom teeth were extracted, which resulted in three weeks without running. This was the plan from the beginning.
Then, just one week into training, an Achilles tendon injury flared up. I had to spend the next month in the pool regretting not running during my break. I tried to find positives in the situation, but after looking back on years of running logs, I found a pattern. When I ran regularly during the offseason, I returned healthy and enjoyed a smooth build-up. But when I took time completely off, I often spent weeks nursing aches and pains. It was a pretty clear correlation, but the cause and effect weren't as apparent.
Why would rest result in injury?
The short answer: I am used to running. I even crave it. My soft tissue is accustomed to the stress of training, as I have worked tirelessly to build that tolerance. Going three weeks without running tells my body it's retired, and that it's allowed to loosen up. There are reasons for why one injury often leads to another, and why staying healthy is much easier than recovering.
This year, I put to practice the lessons from my past offseason mistakes. I ran the day after my season ended, and during a 12-day vacation around Australia, I found time every day to run 20-40 minutes at 8-plus-minute pace (except once: the night after I bruised my shin trying to jump onto the "ladies only" dance stage).
I've since shifted into preseason mode--we are now a week away from starting practice again--but the transition has been smooth so far (knock on wood). The addition of miles and workouts will progress back to my regular routine, which will not only ensure healthy legs, but fit ones.
Hopefully, this is the offseason method that works for me. It's possible to continue running with your brain on autopilot, and you can recover while jogging. My break is my cool down. Maybe next year, it will be a victory lap.
At the end of the day, you have to find what works best for you. Here's what some of the other pros are doing in the offseason:
Kate Grace, Oiselle (2016 800m Olympian)
"This was the first season that ended on my own terms. I wasn't injured or over-trained, and so I ended purposefully. We'll see if it works! [Coach] Drew [Wartenburg] had us do a short cool down after 5th Avenue [Mile] and then I didn't run for two weeks. I wasn't a complete slob since I stayed relatively active. Then, 7-10 days into the off period, we started doing a 10-minute routine of activation exercises, which are mainly hip mobility, squats and skips. The idea is to not be a waste of muscle starting up again. Fourteen days after, I started doing easy jogs of 30-40 minutes going one day on, one day off; two on, two off; three on, one off. That's where I am now. By the end of the season, I felt like I needed two weeks. It's a mental mark to turn off your brain and get excited for next year. Physically, you need to come out of peak fitness. I want runs to be harder again. There is a benefit to working yourself back into shape."
Donn Cabral, Nike (two-time 3000m steeplechase Olympian)
"I take a day off as I fly home and get into what I call 'unstructured downtime,' which is when I run if I want to, and won't if I don't. It's normally about 50 miles per week for a couple weeks. This year, I am going to train until New Year's for a 15K in Brazil. I also don't want to start at nothing before Manchester. Between the Olympics and now, I have been training decently well, but intensity is down--especially mentally. I track intensity by my diet. Am I eating muffins and Snickers? After New Year's, I will drop my mileage for two to three weeks of easy running. I like running, and figure I will take time off if/when I get injured. 30 to 50 minutes is enough for me to enjoy it and recover. I get soft and don't feel good if I do nothing at all. There is something to be said about the structural integrity of bones and tendons and how running helps calcify and keeps the blood going to the right areas. It helps things heal and stay healthy. This all accumulates to a lot of time very easy, at least mentally."
Author's Note: I always say you can track Donn's intensity by whether he is eating yogurt out of the tub.
Matt Llano, HOKA One One (2:12 marathoner)
"My off-season is really only the two weeks after the marathon. Coach Rosario suggests two weeks completely off with no running, cross-training or gym. But we compromised, because I hate taking any amount of time off. I will run every other day for 20-30 minutes very relaxed, without a watch. I focus on the joy of running, not the splits. I try to still be active by going on hikes and traveling. If I don't do anything, then coming back will feel like garbage, and all these little things start popping up. Normally, I won't even cool down after a marathon. Maybe a long walk or short shakeout later in the day followed by nothing the next day. It's a good time to be a normal human."
Shannon Osika, Saucony (4:28 mile)
"In the past, I was forced to take breaks due to injury, but am lucky right now. I have just been lounging around and trying to take care of all the things I have neglected, like cleaning. The next couple weeks are really laid back with just a few 30-minute runs each week. I've been doing hot yoga, and I really want rollerblades. Taking more time off without running, and I just feel bad. You can still come back refreshed without feeling stale. Injury can spark from doing nothing because your body just isn't used to it."
Erik Sowinski, Nike (1:44 800m)
"I take two weeks off completely. I used to do one, but it was too short for me to be mentally recovered. Physically, it's not an issue, and I haven't been injured coming back. I broke my ankle playing basketball in high school, so I try to avoid other sports. The first week back, I'll probably run about 30 miles. I try to accomplish a whole lot of nothing and enjoy the diet of putting on 10 pounds. After nine months of racing and routine with my eyes set on a goal, I need to break out of the monotony."
Kyle Merber is a professional runner for HOKA One One and the New Jersey*New York Track Club. His personal best for 1500m is 3:34.5 and he tweets too much (@TheRealMerb).