Lessons learned from my 6-month running “off season”

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First of all, thank you everyone for your supportive comments on my last post, and for listening while I vented out my post-race frustrations. I’m grateful for and impressed by all of you wonderful readers because even though I was writing about some pretty murky, ambiguous feelings – “I know I didn’t deserve a good race time because I haven’t been working hard, and yet, I’m disappointed that I didn’t get one…huh?!” – you all seemed to understand, and offered some great comments.

I bring this up not only cause y’all are awesome, but because it’s a good segue way into a post I’ve wanted to write for a while.

Pittsburgh Marathon training is less.than.TWO.WEEKS away (SQUEAL!!), which means that my long “off season” is finally coming to an end. Before I say goodbye to it for the next 4+ months, I wanted to take a few moments to talk about what I’ve learned in the past 6 months.

It’s been a long time and there have been some twists and turns, and some of you are newer to the blog, so first: a recap.

 

I ran Grandma’s Marathon on June 20th, and my plan was to get right back into training and push full steam ahead for a fall marathon. But things just did not get off on the right foot and I could tell right away it wasn’t working out, so after a few weeks I finally decided to cut my losses and drop down to the half. Looking back, I think part of me could sense that I was heading toward Plateauville USA (or, worse, Injuryville USA), even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

IMG_1948I turned down the volume on my training for a while. I had two half marathons scheduled for September that I switched down to 10Ks (how convenient that they both had that option!). I cut my mileage way down and focused on running for fun, when I felt like it, and just staying in shape. I figured that I’d run my 10Ks and use October to build up to my half marathon on November 1. I let go of any time goal for that race since I knew I wouldn’t be prepared.

At one point I got the itch to try for a half marathon PR, so I signed up for another one on December 6th, with the hope that by giving myself more time to train I might have a shot. I was raring to go for a couple weeks but then I encountered the same thing that happened to my marathon training a couple months earlier: I just couldn’t get into it. I found myself in the weird conflicting place of wanting race success but not wanting to put in the work for it. I just didn’t care enough.

IMG_2390So I resigned myself to sticking with maintenance running, and what followed were some mega peaks and valleys. Some weeks I was really crankin’ out the runs, some weeks running was basically an afterthought. Sometimes I felt guilty or beat myself up for skipping workouts, other times I couldn’t care less. I didn’t make schedules for myself and ran when I felt like it.

In September I signed up for the Pittsburgh Marathon. Training was still a long way off when I forked over my registration fee, but it gave me something to look forward to and made me feel a lot more positive despite my lack of running motivation, although I have felt some anxiety about doing enough base building to prepare.

 

I’ve basically has a 5-6 month off season. I would characterize most of these last months as maintenance running. No training, no plans, just trying to maintain fitness and let other things in life take priority for a while.

 

First things first: how did this off season affect my actual running?

 

The answer is, somewhat surprisingly: not much. I suppose I won’t know the extent of the impact until I start marathon training, but judging by my race times and training runs, it’s been fairly minimal.

IMG_2607-0The one exception is that my endurance has taken a notable hit. I’ve noticed this most in my half marathons, when I don’t have the energy to pick up speed in the second half like I used to and instead find myself fading. I’m not surprised by this, since my mileage is low and I haven’t been doing regular long runs. I’m also not worried about this, as I know it will come back, and I know it will be a lot easier for me to reclaim endurance than to reclaim speed.

IMG_2189 The good news is that my speed and my shorter distance endurance are pretty consistent with past levels. I still mostly hit the same paces, although they often take a bit more effort and I don’t see the faster ones as frequently. I think this is a result of the fact that, despite inconsistency and more time off, I have been keeping up with my running. I’ve been sprinkling speed work into my off season training instead of just doing all easy runs. I think that including variety in my running has been key to helping me maintain my overall running fitness when my mileage/consistency are lacking.

 

I won’t lie: this off season was hard. While I’ve spent many weeks relieved that I didn’t have to cram in a bunch of miles and force myself out the door to run, this time has also been fraught with aimlessness, doubt, insecurity, jealousy, and just being fed up as hell sometimes. And those are just the good parts. 😛

Much of that struggle boils down to this:

I’ve been a runner for about 2.25 years now (had to add that .25!). I’ve squeezed a lot into that time, and what that means is that until this summer, I’ve basically been in a constant state of training for something. Whenever one big race would end, it was time to train for another. This summer/fall was my first time with no structure, no plan, no training, no goal race. It was totally outside my comfort zone, both as a runner and as someone who thrives on structure, and I struggled to adjust. A big part of that struggle was making sense of the fact that even though I had a hard time acting outside my preferences, I still knew that I was doing the right thing and as much as I felt uncomfortable without a structured training plan, I didn’t miss it and wasn’t ready to take it back yet. A rock and a hard place.

Much of my blogging has been focused on those negative aspects, I guess because they’re easy to write about. But there have also been a lot of great things to come out of this strange, awkward time and I want to take a moment to highlight what I gained from my “break”.

To everything, there is a season.

IMG_2343-0This is probably the biggest thing I learned this whole year. Being in a constant state of training and improving had been working well for me as a new runner, and in my youthful arrogance I assumed it could continue that way forever. And then I got a reality check. Running, like life, is a constant series of ebbs and flows, changing seasons. No one can be “on” all the time and progress is not linear. Even the elites need time off and suffer performance plateaus. This season, my biggest triumph was finally starting to embrace the fact that there is a time for everything. Sometimes heavy structure and planning is appropriate, and sometimes it is not. There is a time to train hard and focus on big goals, but your body and mind also need time off to recharge. On and off seasons, slumps and success streaks, they all have one big thing in common: they don’t last.

IMG_2540Despite the frequent feelings of frustration, restlessness, and uncertainty, I really do feel like this off season was a big gift to myself. And that gift takes many forms. I gave myself the gift of all the hard lessons and learning experiences I got this summer/fall about managing expectations vs. reality, being patient, and having humility. I gave myself the gift of growing and maturing as a runner and as a person by forcing myself out of my comfort zone for a while and enduring the exasperation that inevitably comes with that. Finally, and arguably most importantly, I gave myself the gift of allowing myself to get to a better place mentally, and of being able to go into my next training cycle feeling exactly how I should feel: excited, motivated, and fresh. I can’t yet know what will happen during this upcoming training cycle but, you guys, I gotta say – I’ve got a good feeling about this one.

And that good feeling includes the sense that in a couple months, all of the stresses from my off season are going to show themselves to be more than worth it.

Get ready, dear readers. I’m back.

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12 thoughts on “Lessons learned from my 6-month running “off season”

  1. I really enjoyed reading this reflection, Hanna! I was surprised to learn that you’ve only been running for 2.25 years – you have accomplished so much as a runner already! It’s so valuable that you learned how to be comfortable with an off-season and not having a plan – the longer you run, the more those seasons will benefit you both mentally and physically. So excited for you to start marathon training!!

  2. You have accomplished a whole bunch since you started running and there is going to be lots of great stuff to come!! You did very well maintaining a good base to start your next training cycle 🙂
    I feel you on the endurance, since i had to miss so many runs the past few weeks (due to foot pain) I could feel the energy shift those last few miles of the half. lol ugh…
    It is good to recharge and rest some, you can’t go full steam ahead everyday. You sound ready now 🙂 and I know it is going to turn out well!!

  3. I somehow always forget that you haven’t been running all that long. For some reason I think of you as someone who ran in college and high school. I think it is a hard transition going from “beginner runner” to “lifelong runner”. It is a transition that I still think I am in myself. I’ve had to think about what I want out of this sport/hobby. Do I want quick PRs? Do I still want to be running at 50? 60? 70? Do I want to be a social runner or a solo runner? Etc. Part of it is also the realization that my era of virtually automatic PRs is likely coming to an end. Because I don’t race much, I have been able to almost guarantee a PR every time I do. Now that I’ve got more races under my belt, it isn’t going to happen. I’ve picked off the low hanging fruit, so to speak, in terms of race day mistakes and being undertrained. My point is, this has all been part of the process of becoming a more mature runner, and it seems like you’ve been facing many of the same challenges in your off season. It’s part of what has made following your blog such a pleasure.

    I think the next round of marathon training will be very gratifying for you. I’m sure you will break out of this slump and I look forward to hearing about all of the excitement of training!

  4. You’ve only been running 2.25 years and you’ve crammed all this in? WELL NO WONDER!! You needed a break! Pittsburgh is going to come before you know it, can’t wait to follow you’re training. Once you get back into the swing of things, I’m sure it’ll all come back way quicker than you think.

  5. Oooh, welcome back! Taking time off is seriously good for the body and soul in the long run. I usually try to take a break once a year; I’m impressed that this is your first real “off season”. I know it’s going to do you good! It’s evident you’re feeling SO ready to get back to serious training.

  6. There is the bounce back!! Great to hear the enthusiasm back and hearing you ready to go for the next cycle. We all need a place that brings us back to the love and joy. For some that’s a break to remind how much we enjoy running. For me it was going back to trail running. Being in nature, so peaceful, enjoying all the beauty…reminded me about all the fun adventures. Once you’ve had that bounce back, you can jump back in with passio . Can’t wait to see what this next cycle has in store for you!

  7. Great to hear you excited and looking forward to marathon training! I think these 6 months of off-season will serve you well as you start your training. Looking forward to following along!

  8. I think sometimes we all just need a break. & it doesn’t mean we don’t love running. Honoring your body & how you feel mentally is always the best choice to make. But it can be tough when everyone else is racing. But marathon training plans are tough. My head wasn’t quite all in on my last plan & I feel like it showed in my runs.

    BTW I am really excited to read how your training goes for PGH once it all gets started. Running nerd over here.

  9. I should just copy and paste this onto my blog (not really) but you seriously just described my feelings and running to a T. Everything you said is so true for me right now, except I am 5 weeks into marathon training and need to get it together!! Hopefully we can keep each other motivated!

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