Making the most of the off season – a talk with Dr. Aleck Wong

‘Tis the season! This phrase is heard ringing throughout our lives day-in and day-out this time of year. And while everyone is bustling about with the busy-ness of juggling life and preparing for the holidays, runners and endurance athletes are also typically finding themselves in the midst of another kind of season – the off season. I think of it more as a “reboot season” – unplugging for a bit and starting back up again after sufficient rest. It’s a crucial time for a runner, truly. A rich opportunity to let go of the rigors of training and racing in order to reap the benefits of and learn from the prior cycle or to address issues that have lingered from it. It’s a time to recharge our batteries on all levels – physical, mental and emotional.

This season can be welcomed and embraced by any level of runner, but it also oftentimes leaves us feeling a little bit lost and anxious to get back to the rhythms of training and racing. I have been wondering lately – what is the BEST way to approach this in-between time, to prime our bodies and minds for goals we have ahead of us?

How do we make the most of our time off from training? As a coach and an athlete myself, I have a lot of ideas and opinions about this. But I wanted to ask someone whose expertise and opinions I have always valued, to get a little more insight into it and to pass that wisdom along to you.

Last week I had the privilege of spending an hour on the phone with one of my very favorite people, Dr. Aleck Wong. I imagine many of you reading this are familiar with Dr. Wong, and the amazing service he provides to athletes of all levels in northern Virginia. If not, I will tell you quite simply – he is the best. And this isn’t just my personal opinion – he has been named the Best Sports Medicine Doctor of the Mid-Atlantic Region in 2013, 2014 and 2015 by Competitor Magazine. For many years Dr. Wong worked with me personally as I trained and raced my way from a 4:35 marathon to a 3:11, beginning just a few weeks after having my third child. His care goes well beyond working with muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones, though. He treats the WHOLE person and always looks beyond the site of pain or discomfort to understand and to heal. To help someone be and feel his or her very best. This has always for me gone beyond my running. Over the years, Dr. Wong became a very dear friend to me, helping me through some pretty rough patches and celebrating my accomplishments with me. I am a better person, and a better athlete, because of his care.

Dr. Wong and I talked all things off season, and discussed what it really means to unplug as an athlete and why it’s so important for us to do so for overall health and performance down the road. Whether you are someone who is coming out of your fall season having completely rocked it with PRs in every distance and no injuries, illnesses or niggles or you had a tough cycle and are feeling lingering soreness or fatigue, using this break in training to reflect and get really honest with yourself is going to make a big difference for you. I have broken down his advice and our conversation into some manageable pieces, hopefully making it a more simple and less daunting (and maybe even exciting!) endeavor for all:

REFLECT AND ASSESS: Taking the time to really look at your prior training cycle is going to help you understand a lot about yourself – and your running. Getting really honest about the details hidden in the WHOLE picture will help explain why things went they way they did with your training and racing last season, and can also be red flags for you. Look for patterns in your life and be real with yourself about how they may be impacting your overall health (this includes mood!) and performance. Stress manifests itself in our lives in many ways and we will see its impacts sometimes subtly at first, treating it more as a “nuisance” rather than as a warning sign or a call for change from our bodies. Fighting a nagging cold, interrupted sleep, a niggling lingering pain, a higher (or much lower!) resting heart rate … these are just a few examples of such warning signs.

Look at your training log for patterns in your runs and then also think about what was going on in your life outside of training. Pay attention to the parallels because I guarantee you there will be some. Be curious and dig around if it’s not jumping right out at you. Some ideas? You can go see a professional for some additional insight (a chiropractor, physical therapist, massage therapist are all helpful), have a physical if you are due for one, get your blood tested with to make sure crucial biomarkers (vitamin D, iron levels, cortisol, and more) are all within healthy ranges.

SWITCH GEARS: The off season does not mean that we stop running or exercising altogether and become couch potatoes. It does however mean that it’s time to switch gears and turn the volume down on our stress levels. Exercise can be stress relief BUT at certain intensities our bodies interpret it as STRESS itself (even if mentally and/or emotionally we don’t see it that way) which will impact hormone and overall energy levels and leave us wondering why we aren’t sleeping well or are gaining weight or feeling extra tired, etc. Turning the volume down means taking it easy on the body and sometimes we need help with understanding what that means. This would be a good time to do some Pilates (check out Pilates Anytime classes/workshops taught by Myriam Kane. They are amazing! Use code MYRIAM for 30 days free!), go for a swim, take a yoga class, try TRX, go for a walk with a good friend or loved one who you don’t usually get to exercise with, or even run with someone who hasn’t typically been at the same fitness level as you so you can spend time together. Use this downtime as a chance to nourish your life and your relationships. Sleep in and get your exercise done later on in the day so you can spend your mornings with your family if that’s not the typical status quo for you.

EXPERIMENT: Trying out some new ways of doing things helps us learn, grow and improve, discover new passions and interests, meet new people, and open our eyes and minds to areas of our lives that need some tending to. Making changes and experimenting in the midst or at the height of a training cycle isn’t ideal for most of us though, so this is an opportune time to do so. Been curious about the MAF training method? Want to know if measuring your heart rate variability can be a useful tool in informing your training? Wonder if different types of fueling are better for your body than others? What about giving form drills a try (or reincorporating them back into your routine) or seeing what Chi Running is all about? Now is a great time to look into these things and test them out for yourself. Be the scientist of your life and have fun with it!

TRUST: For a lot of us, taking a step back and slowing things down (whether we are feeling awesome or our bodies have been insisting on it for a while) can be a little scary. The idea of losing fitness and having to “come back” after a break ensues a feeling of panic in a lot of us. We are going to lose some fitness during the off season if we do it right! But there is so much to be gained – better health, more awareness and knowledge, increased connection with loved ones – that when it it’s time to get back to training we will be primed for good things ahead.

Bottom line: If we take a break and give our bodies what they need, they will thank us by giving us what we ask of them later.

How do you feel about the off season? Do you have any advice to add, or stories to share about your own experiences during the off season? What do you find has worked best for you? Do you have any questions for me or for Dr. Wong?

 

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