A physio's recommendations for the running "off-season"

I am planning to run a lot more in 2020 and have joined the Strava 1000km running challenge for 2020 as a goal, a big increase from 164 km last year. This is not the normal time of year that you see posts on running, but I have running on the mind at the moment, and we should remember there are runners who keep going throughout the winter. I am impressed with the number of runners wrapped up in their winter gear and on the Collingwood streets and trails!


If you are running or not at this time of year, we can still be making the most of the off-season to help reduce our risk of injury, improve our running next season, and stay fit and healthy.


Firstly, let's remember that off-seasons are good. There is a reason that all sports have a schedule, and all athletes factor in rest periods. It is an opportunity most importantly to rest and recover, but also to refocus and work on different areas to help your activity and performance. As a physiotherapist, I like both of these opportunities. Being able to rest, and also do things to improve your performance are essential components of staying free of injury!


If you are a recreational runner like myself or a seasoned runner, these are important things to consider for your “off-season”.


1. Rest and recover. Do this properly. Don’t rest from running, but then go out and vigorously cross-country ski for multiple hours every day. I would recommend a minimum of 2 weeks of rest from vigorous activity. Walking, swimming, cycling, skiing, yoga, are all fine to do but keep it recreational and at a light intensity. Give your body a break.


Won’t I lose my fitness? There is no hiding the fact that you will lose some of your strength and endurance from a couple of weeks of lower activity. However, the rate this happens depends on the individual, and overall the benefits of allowing the body to rest and reducing the risk of injury will outweigh the losses. Remember you are only resting a short period and you will get those gains back quickly!


Everyone's rest period will be different, take these into consideration:

  • You lose fitness quicker as you age, and don’t get it back as quick either :(

  • If you have been consistently training for at least a year, you maintain your fitness levels better

  • Light cardio work will help maintain levels for longer. Remember we are letting your body recover, not becoming sedentary. You are allowed, and it is recommended, to still do some light exercise.


2. Cross-train. This means do something else other than your primary activity that will benefit your fitness. Runners generally don’t like to hear this from my experience, and I can understand why. Running is an excellent form of exercise. Even at a slow pace, the metabolic equivalent is matched by that of vigorous swimming or cycling, and it is easy to do anywhere at any time. It gives you a lot of bang for the buck.

However, 80% of running-related injuries occur from overuse (Arnold & Moody,2018). So once you have rested, let's think about incorporating some cross-training alongside our running routine during the off-season.


Now, don’t get me wrong. If you want to get better at running, you have to run. The specificity of training is the only way to truly get better. However, there is evidence that cross-training can help to increase your VO2 max. VO2 max is the maximal amount of oxygen a person can utilize during exercise and a good measure for aerobic endurance. Cross-training between bike, elliptical, swimming and running have all been shown to increase VO2 max in individuals (Foster et al, 1995, Paquette et al, 2018).


There is a lack of research around the effect of cross-training on injury prevention, but as we know the majority of running injuries are related to overuse. Therefore, if we can complete an exercise session that isn’t running and is still going to benefit us, it takes away an element of “overuse”. Makes sense right?!


3. Strength train. A common running myth is that runners don’t need to strength train. This is just not true.


A 2018 review demonstrated that strength training of the legs demonstrated improvements in running economy and performance in middle and long-distance runners. Exercises ranged from free weights, body weight, and machine weights, but all focused on strengthening of the legs 2-3x a week (Blagrove et al, 2018).


Additionally, core strength training has been shown to improve 5000m performance after 6 weeks (Sato & Mokha, 2009), and an 8-week core strengthening program has demonstrated improvements in static balance, core endurance and running economy (Hung et al 2019).


The off-season is a perfect time to add a combination of lower body strengthening and core training into your routine, and you will see the benefit of this during the season. If you have not completed any strength training before, then be smart, go and see a professional who can create a program suitable for you and teach you the exercises. We are trying to avoid problems, not create them by training poorly!


4. Mobility work. Hips, hamstrings, quads, calf muscles, ankles, and your big toe. Basically all of the lower body. Notice how I said mobility work, and not just stretch… There are lots of ways to increase mobility, different types of stretching, eccentric training and range of movement exercises. See a professional for an assessment and advice about different strategies to help with your mobility if you are not getting anywhere. Poor mobility has been associated with conditions of the low back and lower extremities (Reiman & Matheson, 2013), so use the off-season to work on some of these restrictions. You will notice the difference in your running and everyday life if you do!


5. Plan your season. If you are a competitive runner you will have a list of races and events that you want to take part in for the season. Some will be more important than others. Plan ahead; decide which races you want to perform at your best in and which others can be used as training runs.


Look at how spread out your races are, does the schedule allow for lower mileage and rest weeks, as well as sensible increases in mileage and speed work? Do not organize your 2 most important runs on the same weekend, you will likely be disappointed about how you perform and the intensity of training may cause some issues on the body.


There are lots of tools out there to help schedule your training, and the more experienced you are the more you will know what works for yourself. If you are not doing so already then I encourage you to go and research. From what I have come across they all concentrate on the same thing- don’t do too much too quickly, and make sure you have suitable recovery time! If you get this right, it is a sure-fire way to improve your performance and reduce the risk of injury.


If you are a recreational runner and don’t complete many races this may be less of an issue. However, you should still plan ahead. Be aware of when you will be on vacation, or maybe when work gets very busy and you have less time to train, or when you may participate in other sports as well. These peaks and troughs in your exercise levels will have an effect on your body, and the ability to modify your training will help you stay away from issues. For example, if you go on vacation for 2 weeks and don’t run at all… when you come back you will need to reduce your mileage/intensity/frequency and build it up again. Sounds sensible, but this is commonly seen in the clinic and related to some of the injuries we see.


That should all keep you busy and will definitely help with your running season, which is not that far away already!


Next post I will start looking at some more specific conditions that we see with runners and how we can help treat and manage them.


Now get out there and make the most of this off-season :)


References

Arnold, M.J., & Moody, A.L. (2018). Common Running Injuries: Evaluation and Management. American Family Physician. 97(8), p510-516.


Blagrove, R. C., Howatson, G., & Hayes, P. R. (2018). Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 48(5), 1117–1149.


Foster, C., Hector, L., Welsh, R., Schrager, M., Green, M., & Snyder, A.. (1995). Effects of specific versus cross-training on running performance. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology. 70. P. 367-72.


Hung, K.C., Chung H.W., Yu, C.C., Lai, H.C., & Sun, F.H. (2019). Effects of 8-week core training on core endurance and running economy. PLOS ONE, 14(3).


Paquette, M.R., Peel, S.A., Smith, R.E., Temme, M., & Dwyer, J.N. (2018). The Impact of Different Cross-Training Modalities on Performance and Injury-Related Variables in High School Cross Country Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(6), p 1745-1753.


Reiman, M. P., & Matheson, J. W. (2013). Restricted hip mobility: clinical suggestions for self-mobilization and muscle re-education. International journal of sports physical therapy, 8(5), 729–740.


Sato, K., & Mokha, M. (2009). Does Core Strength Training Influence Running Kinetics, Lower-Extremity Stability, and 5000-m Performance in Runners? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(1), p133-140.

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