Off-Season Training and Diet

by Karl Gruber
With the half or full marathon you trained so long and hard for behind you, now is an excellent opportunity for you to learn how to handle off-season training. Off-season training is meant for that time period in which you have completed your biggest running goal of the season but have not yet decided what your next big race will be. 

As with most everything in life, your training and racing season is cyclical. For example, the plan that most half and full marathon runners follow includes two major races each year – one in the spring and one in the fall. Mind you, that this is a big generalization, as there are plenty of runners who do not adhere to this training and racing philosophy, but far more runners utilize it, with good results. 

Here’s the basic formula for this twice a year major race plan:

Cycle One
Cycle one includes a 16 to 24-week long, progressive buildup of your body with a continual mileage increase week after week after week. This build-up features an increase in distance of your weekly long run until you hit 10 to 12 miles for the half marathon and anywhere from 20 to 22 miles for the full marathon. This increase in long runs - combined with higher intensity mid-week workouts such as hill repeats, interval training, and track workouts - is a proven strategy to improve your aerobic, anaerobic, cardiovascular and muscular capacities to race the best you possibly can at your goal race.

Cycle Two
Your off-season is the time between the end of the intense training of Cycle One and the time you begin that same cycle again for your next big goal race. Cycle Two is your time to rest, recover, heal (both physically and mentally), and grow stronger. This readies you for the vigor’s of starting and enduring Cycle One all over again. So it is this second cycle, the Off-Season that we focus on here.

For many runners, the off-season is difficult to adjust to because they are used to running and training hard most of the year. The key is to remember that you don’t have to stop running during this period. You can still get your “fix,” but you most certainly can back-off in the intensity and the amount of mileage you run. 

The thing that you must avoid during the off-season is not running at all. This is because once you jump back into your half or full marathon training cycle, you will lose too much of your running fitness base. Once you start again, it will be almost like starting over again, which can be very discouraging and frustrating. 
In addition to training, another important thing to review in your off-season is your diet. Intuitively you know that your body simply needs lots of calories to make up for the deficit of calories you burned during your marathon, and during intense training. Many runners who train for long distance races are used to eating a diet high in carbohydrates. However, without a proper understanding of the type of carbohydrates that your body needs in order to perform well, you can end up eating the wrong types of carbs. 

In-season or Cycle One, it is possible for your body to simply turn those calories – no matter the source (i.e., jelly donut or sports energy bar) – almost immediately into fuel. During the off-season or Cycle Two, however, it can become a problem because you are not burning up those calories near as fast due to a much lower level of physical exertion. Consequently, extra weight in the form of fat may be added to your body. 

Edmund Burke, Ph.D. states in his book Optimal Muscle Recovery that, “Above all else, balanced nutrition is paramount to your success as an athlete because it is crucial to your overall health…It is important to note that what’s considered adequate nutrition of the nonathlete is most not likely adequate to meet your body’s requirements. As an active person, you have increased energy needs, so you need to eat more of the energy-yielding macronutrients in the right proportions.”  

What this means is that even in the off-season, it is important to eat correctly to maintain a lean body and make the most of your reduced running regimen.

Burke goes on to discuss the 40-30-30 Diet where 40% of your diet come from carbohydrates, 30% from fat and 30% from protein. Burke notes, “In the end, most nutrition researchers, sports dietitians, and exercise physiologists remain firm in their conviction that the optimal diet consists of 60 percent of calories from carbohydrate, 25 percent from fat, and 15 percent from protein. This recommendation is based on a veritable mountain of validated and convincing research.”

Following this proven diet works well both in-season and off-season, but adhering to it especially during the off-season will allow you to remain lean, fueled and healthy. Come a new Cycle One, your body will be ready to start performing at a much higher level of running in a shorter amount of time. That, and because of the reduced amount of running during your off-season, allow your muscles to heal and grow stronger without any unnecessary weight gain. Now, when your new marathon training cycle starts, your body will be like a racecar with a full-tank and a brand-new set of tires, ready to race! 

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