© Pikes Peak Marathon
Physical Therapist & Running Coach at Run Potential Rehab & Performance in Colorado Springs, CO.
With the summer season now in the rear-view mirror and with winter lurking closer by the day, for most of us in North America the trail race season is coming to a close. That means the trail running off-season is upon us. Depending on where you live, the off-season is highlighted by colder weather, shorter days, and limited trail races available. For some of us, that may mean a “hard stop” with running for several weeks or months, some of us may spend more time cross-training/strength training and less time running, and some others may continue to build their training as if there’s no true off-season. The question is, what should you do?
In this article, I will explain some considerations for how to spend the off-season including variations of training. But, consider everything with a grain of salt, as the off-season is highly dependent on each individual.
Off-Season Timeline Considerations
At this time of the year I often find myself planning out my races for the upcoming spring, summer, and fall. Typically, my off-season timeline will vary based on when my races are planned for the following year & my current state of health. Ideally, if I have a goal race in March, my off-season may be several weeks to months shorter than if my first goal race is in June. However, if I feel a bit “run down” either physically or mentally, or if I’m still dealing with some sort of running-related injury from the year, my off-season timeline could look vastly different. So again, it really is dependent on the individual.
I’ve never been someone who does well continuing to search for peak fitness at all times of the year, nor do I believe that is a healthy approach. Though a small percentage of individuals can achieve that (arguably a very small percentage), most of us will often stay healthier if we reduce our running in the off-season and shift focus. This will potentially benefit you in remaining healthy, but also by reducing the risk of mental burnout. I recommend shifting focus in the following ways:
By no means is this an exhaustive list, but more so considerations that have worked well for a multitude of runners to aid in preventing mental burn out and reducing injury risk. I will elaborate on each specific bullet point and the following sections.
Reduce Total Running Volume
Reducing your weekly running volume can vary by running less frequently (ie. 3 days instead of 5 days), but also by reducing total time/mileage spent running. There’s no perfect answer for a reduction in volume, as some people may drop their total volume by >50%, some 20%, or some may just do 1 day less of running. Finding the sweet spot for you is something you need to test. I often recommend most runners to still remain running 3x a week to maintain some base aerobic fitness and mechanical stimulus to the activity; the other days may be filled with a combination or rest, strength training, or cross training depending on the person and situation.
Change The Run Environment
If you’ve spent the fall and summer on certain trails, it can be a nice mental stimulus to change it up. Now, if you're 100% all in on trail running only, I get it. So what I recommend is finding new trail areas to explore or run. Here in Colorado Springs we are pretty spoiled with the variety of trails. I often find myself spending a lot of time on certain trails or routes due to enjoyment or convenience, but it’s a nice change when I either find new trails or vary the trails I usually don’t run on during the summer months. This can be a nice novel change for our brains bringing a different sense of enjoyment.
Changing the running environment can also provide variability in the mechanical stimulus to your body which can be a healthy alternative to always running on the same terrain. I find myself running more on the roads this time of year, partially due to accessibility, but also due to working on some weaknesses, and for me that’s flatter and faster speed based training. But for some of you this could also mean finding a local track, utilizing a treadmill, or just finding new areas or routes to run. The key to changing the environment is novelty!
Improve Your Run Weaknesses
I know for myself that most of my summer and fall season were spent running trails, and specifically with a healthy amount of climbing and descending in the high country. That typically means a combination of running at a relatively slower pace on steeper climbs, intermittent hiking, and enjoying the technical to flowy downhills. What becomes a relative weakness during the summer months is my running speed and efficiency on flatter terrain. Simply, due to the fact that my musculoskeletal system and nervous system are “out of tune” with that type of running.
As I’m writing this article, I’ve been focusing more on my running efficiency and speed on the road and track. And though I’m still getting out on trails 1-2x a week, I’m enjoying the shift of focus to working on my current weakness. Depending on your running goals for the next year, this can be a nice time to improve on your running efficiency and turn over which can feed into the trail running season come spring and summer. What I will say from experience, and from the experience of other strong trail runners, is that speed and efficiency on the flatter terrain does translate into your climbing efficiency. So keep that in the back of your mind during this time of the year!
When it comes to cross-training, there appears to be a love-hate relationship in most runners I know. Some runners really enjoy the balance of cross-training in their training program especially during the off-season, and other runners just purely want to run. I find that the individuals that “love” cross-training really enjoy the activity (ie. cycling, skiing, etc) itself rather than necessarily doing it just to supplement their run training. I myself really enjoy Nordic skiing in the off-season as well as gravel cycling (weather permitting of course!). So for those of you who love cross-training there’s no need for me to sell it! But, for those of you who despise cross-training, here’s why it can be beneficial:
There’s also something to say about cross-training outside as this can provide some change in scenery in comparison to a machine in the gym. But ultimately, if you can find a cross-training activity you enjoy, that’s the one to stick with!
I’m a strong advocate for strength training all year round to improve load tolerance in our tissues, but also by addressing areas that get neglected in running. During peak run training, I may strength train 1-2x a week to 1x every other week, but during the off-season, I often add in strength training 2-3x a week consistently. I’ve found that an uptick in strength training during the off-season helps my climbing and descending as I return to more frequent trail running.
In the off-season I tend to focus on increasing my strength capacity with bigger movements like the dead-lift, squat, split-squat while also focusing on plyometrics to improve my energy storage and release for running. Though I find value in strength training to specifically improve in areas needed for running, I also believe it’s important to strength train tissues through a full range of motion for general tissue health and resiliency. The off-season can be a time to further explore the gym and/or movements that have been dormant during peak run training!
Rest & Recovery Time
Lastly, the off-season is a time to enjoy more true “off days”. Take advantage of social gatherings with friends or family, getting proper sleep, or enjoying other activities you may have sacrificed during peak training. When we heavily prioritize our runs during peak training, we tend to miss out on the other pieces that bring value to our lives.
I also think there’s something to be said about the natural cycle of sunlight. As we head into the winter season, there’s dramatically less daylight compared to the summertime. Throughout human history the winter season has been a time to rest and recover after a spring, summer, and fall season of doing work. Unfortunately, in today’s modern society we’ve become a bit “out of tune” with the natural cycle of seasonal changes. What I recommend is listening to what your body is telling you this time of year (not to say you shouldn’t listen to your body at other times of the year), as there’s usually no need to “push” your training. More intermittent rest days will be more beneficial to you than harmful as we approach a new cycle of training in the new year!
When it comes to the off-season for trail running, there’s no perfect plan for any specific individual. The past year of racing, training, and potential injuries can dictate your off-season, as well as your future racing schedule plans. My recommendations are to reduce total training volume and to change things up in the off-season. Following these recommendations can aid in reducing physical stress and mental burnout. As for most of us non-professional runners, it’s about longevity in running and enjoying the process for a lifetime!
Written by: Sean Rimmer, Physical Therapist & Running Coach at
Run Potential Rehab & Performance in Colorado Springs, CO.
“ Regain your confidence to run pain free & to your potential”.
441 Manitou Ave, Suite 100
Manitou Springs, CO 80829
In 1972 Peter Strudwick did the Ascent in 4:20:29 and the Marathon in 7:02:28. What is so incredible about that you ask? Well, soon after his mother had caught rubella, commonly called German measles, Peter was born with legs that ended in stumps just past the ankles, a left arm that had only one thumb and a finger, and a right arm ending at the wrist.
When Zebulon Pike tried to ascend the mountain that would later be named after him he was turned back by the harsh weather. Many claim he said that no one would ever reach its summit. However, it is generally accepted that he meant on that day, under those conditions. The snow was waist deep and his men were not dressed for it and were out of food.
“Militant tobacco-hating physician” Dr. Arne Suominen from Delray Beach FL, became the founder of the modern day Pikes Peak races when he wrote a letter to the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce in 1956 and challenged cigarette smokers to race him up and down Pikes Peak. 1956 Results