Posted in Blog.
Re-Examining our Perspective on “Time Off” between Seasons
Striking the Balance between Rest and Activity to Maximize our Offseason
Author’s Note: Let me initiate this blog article with the qualifier that there are absolutely certain instances, such as a bone stress injury (BSI,) or any other medical conditions where an extended period of absolute rest is indicated. This article is written solely for the healthy athlete that has just concluded their goal race or competitive season. Any athlete experiencing a running injury or health condition should seek the medical advice of a licensed healthcare professional such as a Physical Therapist (DPT) or Medical Doctor (MD.)
For many of us, the finish line of our goal race is synonymous with “cold beer and NormaTec sleeves.” I’m an endurance athlete myself, and I understand that after a long season of focused training, I can’t wait to let my foam roller, therabands, and kettlebell collect dust for a week. I used to feel guilty about that. Is this what a pro runner would do? Originally, I would have suspected no. However, after 17 years in the sport of running, I have come to realize that even Olympians take it down a few notches after they finish their competitive season. I would even argue that Olympians may even be more likely to take a temporary, restorative break because they have learned how essential it is to let the mind, body, and emotions have a break. Counterintuitive at first, this “release” is not just mental, it is an essential ingredient for longevity in the sport. Letting go of that on-going, low-level stress that motivates us to train every day allows our parasympathetic nervous system, involved in rest and digestion, to kick into high gear and speed the rebuild and recovery process. Temporarily substituting more sleep and couch time into our lives where the usual checklist of run-supporting habits and prehab usually reside is a great way to decrease stress levels. There is a natural ebb and flow cycle of training/racing that we must respect, focusing on both the peaks and valleys of workload. In return, we will be rewarded with sustainability in our training and racing.
Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, but getting up and moving again sooner rather than later is worth the push. Wolff and Davis supported that when dosed correctly, our bones and soft tissues respond favorably to stresses imposed upon them. In the roughly 24-36 hours following a training session, our body works to rebuild its tissues stronger than ever. Following a great block of training, our bones and soft tissue are more resilient than ever, in accordance with Wolff & Davis’ Laws. Unfortunately for the athlete enjoying a well-deserved rest period, this is a “use it or lose it” situation. A prolonged break, such as 2+ weeks or more without any of these loading forces, results in decreased bone and tissue resilience, due to the lack of stimulus. When the athlete begins training again, they may find themself at increased risk of injury from resting too hard! (Friendly reminder that this advice is directed towards injury-free athletes only.) An active rest period mitigates this risk by maintaining tissue integrity and loading capacity.
Kyle Merber, a Finish Line PT patient and professional runner for the HOKA NJNY track club, has been training at a high level for over 16 years. Having tried the total rest method with less than ideal results, the 3:52 miler decided to shake up his definition of time off.
“I’ve historically had a big issue with my health after taking a couple of weeks or more off between seasons. The intention was always to rest up and heal, but almost every time, once I started reintroducing workouts and upping my mileage, a small injury would deter my training. Having identified this pattern, I now no longer take full-time off and will keep jogging throughout my downtime between seasons. I find that this allows my muscles and tendons to stay strong, and there are no surprises when eventually getting back up to high mileage.”
The caveat here is that for a seasoned athlete like Merber, a short jog is truly innocuous. For injury-prone, newer or lower mileage runners, an active rest might look quite a bit different but work towards the exact same goal of a healthy return to purposeful training. For example, a runner that just completed their first 10k could take the next 5-7 days with only light recovery activities such as relaxing yoga and mobility work. (The key here is that immediately following an event, activities should involve minimal impact/ground reaction forces to allow bones, tendons, connective tissues to recover from the stress of the previous buildup and race.) Following this period of light activity, an athlete should shift gears and begin to progressively load their system with weight-bearing activities such as brisk walking/hiking and resistance training. A progressive, running-specific functional resistance training program is the perfect way to introduce a healthy stimulus for preparing our body to handle the rigors of higher levels of training in the coming season and beyond. The active rest period, without the demands of full training, is the safest time to begin building some lunges, squats, weighted carries and other functional movements into our routine.
Depending on the level of athlete, as well as other factors including injury history, years of training, etc, the definition of active rest will vary widely. A knowledgeable Physical Therapist and/or coach can help plan the proper volume and intensity of active rest that is appropriate for you, personally.
Please comment with your thoughts, feedback, questions, and suggestions for elaboration. I look forward to continuing the dialogue.