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What Does "Off-Season" Really Mean?
Professional endurance athlete, Hillary Allen, on balance, recovery & the off-season.
I move around a lot. As a professional athlete I’m constantly in transition, both physically and mentally. Travel is a necessary part of being an athlete, regardless of your level of competition. The contingent United States is vast enough to cause significant obstacles to traveling to goal races or anticipated adventures. Most times all you need are some good tunes, snacks, and a vehicle to carry everything. But, sometimes there’s international travel, and since I can’t fit my bike rack on the back of a plane, I became familiar with flying with a bike.
It wasn’t all bad, but by the end of a season, filled with races, travel and logistical nightmares, there comes a point when it’s time to hit the reset button. Most times, this ‘reset button’ is triggered by a small meltdown due to pure exhaustion. My brain is ready and wants to keep going, but my body is telling me to stop – it’s pretty much impossible to ride a bike with tears streaming down my face, because I can’t decide between M&Ms and a Snickers bar.
Most athletes think physical rest is the answer, and while I don’t disagree, I think an ‘off-season’ is a mental break more than anything. Think of your body like a sponge. A sponge can only soak up so much water before it needs a break to dry out a little and then it’s poised and ready to absorb more water (in this case training load). So, logically, you need rest to fully recover and then you can soak in more training. However, I think there’s a mental side to it too. Over the course of a season training, racing and traveling takes a toll. There are countless decisions to be made, on a daily basis and those can add to fatigue too. Racing, as I’m sure we all know, takes a toll too, physically of course, but mentally, especially if the race didn’t turn out how you wanted it to.
Off-season does not need to equate to no exercise.
I don’t crave couch time or think I need to become inactive or sloth-like to have a productive off-season. Quite the contrary. I move a lot during these off-seasons, but the main difference for me is taking that mental break from a serious training program or regime. I get to be “lazy.” For me that means, sleeping in a bit later, enjoying a longer breakfast, doing less volume, and not having an agenda. I’ll run or ride more with friends and not have to worry about certain paces, times or reps of anything. I can just play, enjoy. Usually in an off-season I try a different sport entirely. My heart doesn’t know if I’m running, cycling, skiing, swimming or dancing – movement is movement, and an off-season is the time to let things flow a bit more.
Off-season adventures are perfect opportunities to refresh your mind.
For me, it’s all about filling up the tank again – or that sponge for the physical training reference. But that mental training tank, for me is one of the most important parts. I often refer to it as the ‘psych tank.’ Making sure I have plenty of psych for the next year – to train, to travel, to adventure, and of course to race. If this runs dry, then there’s no amount of physical recovery that can maintain it.
Adventure is out there. Or, there. Or, over there.
For me, cycling does just that. I’m new to the sport of cycling and for the first time in my athletic career I am balancing my love of two sports: trail running and gravel biking. Now, I’m incorporating racing both of the sports into my season, so taking an off-season is even more important to top off those ‘psych reserves.’ But the balance of cycling and running (or two sports, hobbies or any activity for that matter) can have a beautiful symmetry. I’ve found that switching sports or having days where I do one or the other will top off my psych reserves, leaving me excited to run one day and get on my bike the next. Maybe the only downside is having the dilemma of wanting to do both the same day (and sometimes I do that). But I think that’s better than not being motivated at all by either. It’s a way to keep things fresh, exciting and new.
Making new friends is necessary for a successful off-season.
I practice this during an off-season even more. Encouraging myself to take breaks, to try new sports or to bundle myself up and brave the elements on a frosty, cold bike ride. Screaming barfi’s can really make you feel alive and quite accomplished for the day.
Reframing my definition of recovery has been an important aspect to a successful off-season. It’s been pretty enjoyable too, who doesn’t enjoy stopping for a warm cup of coffee and a croissant mid-ride, for no other reason as ‘just because?’ This has become my off-season motto and I encourage you to add in a bit more “rest” into your routine during your off-season, no matter how long it might last. I think you’ll be surprised as to how much of a difference these small adjustments, can make when it comes time to start the real work again.
Hillary Allen is an endurance athlete specializing in Ultra marathon distance trail running. She prefers steep and technical terrain earning her the nickname the "Hillygoat." Based in Colorado where she grew up, Hillary also is a coach, writer and teacher. She's earned course records and wins all over the world racing 50km all the way up to 145km, and although running is her specialty, Hillary has also picked up gravel bike racing.
Follow Hillary’s adventures @hillygoat_climbs.