5 Areas Runners Should Train During the Off-Season

Two runners work out in the snow

The off-season is the perfect time to indulge in football games and holiday cookies, but it’s also arguably the most important training cycle of the year.

Using your down time wisely between training blocks can help you become a stronger, more efficient and more resilient runner. Addressing weaknesses or imbalances, working on muscular and mechanical skill sets, or simply reading and researching are all practices that can help you better develop as an athlete.

The five areas runners can train in the offseason are:

  • Good movement patterns
  • Mobility and stability
  • Posture and alignment
  • Flexibility and strength
  • Rest

Good Movement Patterns

A runner in Chicago

The term “functional” is overused in the athletic industry, but the impact of high-quality, functional movement shouldn’t lose its importance.

Better athletes make better runners, and better movers make better athletes. Runners tend to gravitate toward exercises and movements that most closely mirror the running gait. While this is important, it should not be the only thing runners develop, or the athlete could become more susceptible to injury.

Runners should perform movements that take them through all three planes of motion, according to coaches who spoke with Fleet Feet. The three planes of motion are:

  • Sagittal-plane (forward and backward)
  • Frontal-plane (side-to-side)
  • Transverse-plane (rotational)

“In terms of my training, a huge focus is on stability, both forward and lateral movements, and the explosiveness of moving fast and powerfully,” says Matt Mauclair, an Ironman triathlete and founder of Trust The Plan Coaching in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Making sure you can properly perform the five basic movement patterns is also important, Mauclair says. Before picking up heavy weights or tossing around kettlebells, runners should focus on developing solid foundational mechanics by pushing, pulling, squatting, lunging and rotating.

“If you are lunging with slumped shoulders and a rounded back, more often than not you are going to run that way because you haven't addressed the weakness in your back and core,” Mauclair says.

Basic bodyweight exercises for runners are the best way to condition the body for quality movement and create the neurological pathways necessary to sustain these patterns.

A trail runner carriers a water bottle during a workout

Mobility and Stability

Proper movement sequencing is directly related to a runner’s degree of mobility and stability. Because running is a unilateral movement through one plane of motion—meaning you only run forward—runners have a tendency to tighten up and become underdeveloped in many areas. Using body weight or resistance bands, runners can significantly increase their degree of mobility and stability, which will have a major effect on their movement patterns.

“For me, the Holy Grail for our endurance/distance running athletes lies in the proximal hip stability work that we do … making sure we do the exercises that work to stabilize our pelvis,” says Frank Velasquez, the Director of Sports Performance for Allegheny Health Network, in an email to Fleet Feet. “As runners we are always on one leg, so we need to be strong and stable and have stamina on one leg.”

Simple resistance band exercises and planks can go a long way in developing that stability.

“In my opinion,” Velasquez says, “those exercises are what make up the ‘secret sauce’ for keeping an endurance/distance runner healthy and on the road.

Mauclair agrees. “I'm constantly instilling in my program and my athletes’ programs the importance of stability and mobility,” he says.

Posture and Alignment

A girl holds a water bottle while sitting on a bench at a school track

The breakdown in form, and subsequent injuries that come along with distance running, are often traced back to postural weakness or imbalances. No one is perfectly symmetrical, but the better an individual is in holding their body in correct alignment, the more efficiently they are able to handle the impact of running.

About 80 percent of adults report experiencing low back pain at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Age, fitness level and weight gain can all lead to low back pain, especially for desk-bound workers who spend all day hunched over a computer.

“Sedentary lifestyles also can set the stage for low back pain, especially when a weekday routine of getting too little exercise is punctuated by strenuous weekend workout,” according to the NINDS.

Preventing that tweaked back starts with improving your posture, Mauclair says.

“Even if you have strong ankles and calves, the centerpiece always comes back to your back and core area,” he says. “Being conscious of how your postural positioning is during exercises is key.”

Balance exercises using a single-leg stance or an unstable base of support can help an athlete develop better balance, cognition and proprioceptive capabilities.

Stretch and Strengthen

Two women stretch before a race

Flexibility and muscular endurance are the fun conditioning protocols everyone loves to incorporate in an off-season training regimen.

Things like introducing a dedicated yoga flow or restorative session once a week can help relax both your body and your brain. Getting in the gym and moving around some heavy weights can make you feel like a rock star ready to tackle anything the coming season might throw your way.

Velasquez shares his methodology for working with athletes during their off-season:

“The Adaptation/Foundation building phase consists of stabilization-building exercises and low intensity/high volume strength training,” he says. “This is the phase that will focus on the posture/pelvic stability/core control and correcting imbalances and asymmetries. This is the time to correct the skeletal alignment.”

From there, Velasquez says he has athletes move into building strength where intensity increases but volume decreases. He includes high-level plyometric exercises and sports-specific functional drills to continue to improve strength and power.

“Following a periodized training plan that changes every three to four weeks and has one peaking at the right time is important for any and all off-season programs,” he says.

Rest and Relax

For most runners with type-A personalities, rest is the hardest off-season practice to implement.

It’s easy to start going crazy or get cabin fever when your weekly mileage decreases. Sitting back and kicking up your feet can seem like a complete waste of time. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“In my opinion, the ability to enjoy the process of training is key to long term success,” Mauclair says. “We live in a results based society. We want all the results yesterday. However, it's the ability for the athlete, regardless of the level, to slow down at some point, and train to understand how the body operates to eventually get faster later.”

Velasquez agrees.

“During the off-season, athletes should work on resting, recharging and rebuilding the engine,” he says. “The first two to four weeks after your final race, event, game, competition is what I call Phase 1, or your ‘active rest’ period, where you’re just unplugging, decompressing, being a normal human—doing relaxing, fun, non-competitive activities. This is a chance to breathe and slow the pace of the game down for a minute.”

Use the extra time you have to get your hands on a good book or a training journal, or scour the internet for articles that might interest you and help you get the most out of the upcoming season.

By Timothy Lyman. Timothy is the director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh and an ACE certified personal trainer. With over a decade of experience in the field, his education ranges from sports psychology to exercise physiology. He has coached runners at all levels on every surface at any distance, with an emphasis on economy, injury-prevention and functional fitness.

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