Since the start of 2015, I haven’t taken more than a week off from training. I always had another goal in mind, something else to work towards. I finished my first marathon in October 2015 and a week later jumped into six weeks of half-marathon training. More recently, I rolled off the spring marathon season into triathlon season, and then after a week (which ended with the Ride London 100mile cycle… so not really ‘off’) kicked off training for Amsterdam Marathon. I’m a very go-go-go person, and I need races and goals to keep me motivated to lace up and get out there.
But after Berlin Marathon, something strange happened. I simply didn’t want to run. I felt like I had to log some miles, but there was no longer a purpose to them. I had achieved the sub-3:30 dream, and now I felt bereft. For the first time, I had no goal to chase. I tried to convince myself that I was hungry for more, and that I should now target that elusive sub-20min 5km, but my heart wasn’t in it. I did one day of training before deciding it wasn’t worth it – I needed a proper break.
The concept of an ‘off-season’ is foreign to me. I’ve only ever heard of it in relation to university track athletes, who are naturally forced to take a break over the summer holidays when the students go home. No one I know openly talks about taking a few months break from training: it feels like giving up. I have put in so much hard effort and time into improving my running, that surely taking a step back for a while would undo all the progress I made.
Since starting to think about stopping training for a while, I have found a few articles where famous coaches and sportspeople encourage having an off-season. Chrissie Wellington (Ironman champion) in her book says that “[an off-season] can seem like the most heinous crime of decadence to any self-respecting sport obsessive… feel guilty if you have to, but make yourself do it anyway. [… It] will have given you a break from your routine and rejuvenated your body and mind. You will feel refreshed and ready to pursue new goals”. Similarly, in an article for ultrarunners, Jason Koop talks about a ‘transition period’ which has the purpose of rest, rgeneration and rejuvination. “The payoff for executing a proper transition is the ability to shoulder a greater workload as you prepare for your next big event.”
This is what my body and mind needs right now. The eight weeks of training I put into getting that sub-3:30 time was more mental and physical work than I have ever dedicated to training for anything. In fact, I need to remind myself that it was more than eight weeks. Since the start of the triathlon season I have been doing double and triple days, following an insane schedule which I often forget to acknowledge. I made a conscious step-up in effort and was rewarded with PBs across nearly every distance that I ran, swam, cycled and tri’d. Beyond sports, I’ve had a great year at work, am in a loving relationship, and am now moving countries to France. It’s been an incredibly successful, and incredibly busy year.
So I’m taking a step back. For the past two weeks I haven’t had a spreadsheet dictating my life, stating what and how far I should do on which day. Instead I’m catering to my whims and moving in whatever way feels best for me. Often, that’s meant not doing much at all, prioritising sleeping-in and watching TV in the evening over exercise. When I do want to do something, I’ve found myself drawn to activities that are not running: I’ve been swimming again; today I went for a proper cycle in cleats; next week I’m going to play football with some colleagues. I cannot get excited about going out for a run – so I don’t. I have run parkrun because I love the atmosphere, but that’s very different to completing a lonely loop of the Common. I know that I still have a few races left this year, but in comparison to eight races in as many weeks, four events in three months doesn’t sounds like much. I certainly won’t be aiming to PB or do anything other than just have fun.
The idea with an off-season is to do all the things that you want to do normally, but can’t find the time for while training. It’s not just about running less (or not at all), but spending time with friends and family. For me, it’s meant having a few drinks and eating all the wonderful food (carbs!) which I otherwise try to avoid. It’s about letting go of control and expectations, and instead just living day-to-day like a ‘normal’ person.
It’s not an easy mental shift to make, and I really struggled with the decision to stop for a while – especially because my ‘season’ ended so abruptly when I reached my main goal three weeks early. But I made the conscious decision to give myself ‘permission’ to take this time to rest, and that has made all the difference. I’m not letting anyone down by ‘moving’ rather than ‘training’ for a few months – not even myself. What I do (or don’t do) in the remainder of 2017 is all in aid of me coming back ready to give 2018 everything I’ve got.
Have you ever taken an off-season?