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.

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Running Alone

I LOVE running with my buddies.  Whether it’s a sister, a lifelong friend, a new friend, a group of friends in my training group or a stranger I meet while running out on the trail, having someone to share the miles with (especially on a long run) is always something I enjoy.  The community of people who run is truly awesome, and is a HUGE reason why I am as passionate about the sport as I am.

Sometimes I wouldn’t even be out there if it weren’t for my buddies.  Getting out of bed on a freezing cold winter morning to run 8 miles before the sun is up?  Well, let’s just say chances are that I would most likely just sleep in if it weren’t for my buddy counting on me.  Running 20 miles in 90 degree weather under the heat of the blazing sun on a humid summer weekend morning?  Thank goodness for my running buddies out there – providing support, encouragement, distraction, entertainment, inspiration … for hours upon hours of running.  Running around the track at night in the pouring rain and high winds?  I would probably opt for the treadmill if it weren’t for the other crazy people I love so much waiting for me there.  I don’t want to miss out on the fun.  I want to be a part of the memories.  I want to be cheering on my friends and to be cheered on by them.  I can’t say it enough – I love runners and running with runners.

But I also think it is important to run alone, especially when running long and training for a race.

It isn’t easy.  There is no conversation to distract you from the pain, from the distance, from the thoughts in your head.  It is HARD.  It is hard for everyone, trust me.  Not just for people that are new to running, or people that are going farther than they ever have before.  I believe it is hard for the most seasoned and the most elite of runners.  Running is hard.  Running alone is hard.  But it will make you stronger.

You are training for a race – it isn’t supposed to be easy, remember?  You are pushing yourself to go farther, to run longer or faster, to get stronger than you are today.  This requires mental toughness as much as it does physical strength.  To be successful at it demands that you believe in yourself.  That you know without a doubt that YOU are the one responsible for putting one foot in front of the other.  For not giving up.

When you run alone, visualize the strength that is within you, and connect to it.  In the moments when you feel like calling it quits (and trust me, you WILL have those moments!  Lots of them!!) remember that by pushing through that barrier, you are getting stronger both physically and mentally.  My friend Dorothy from the blog Mile Posts talks about this as strengthening our “mental muscle.”  I love this analogy of the mind as a muscle, one that needs to be flexed and stretched and pushed in order to get stronger, to withstand the toughest of situations out on a run.  I think about this a lot when I am running alone.

Mental strength will get you through the toughest parts of a race, when your body is screaming at you to quit.  Your mind is a powerful thing!  When you run alone, you are really able to rely on YOU to pull yourself through, to endure.  You fight through those long runs and then on race day, when you are hurting and feeling like giving up, you can go back and remember those tough training runs that you conquered out there ON YOUR OWN.  Nobody got you through that, just YOU.  I remember hearing a quote somewhere (can’t remember where!) that went something like “running is 90% mental and the other 10% is also … MENTAL.”  Don’t underestimate this.

Go for a long run by yourself and face your demons, your negative thoughts and feelings of self doubt.  Prove to them that you are way stronger than they are.  Embrace the solitude and the peace that running alone can bring to you, too.  Let your mind flow and open your heart to all the beauty that is within you and that surrounds you.  I have had my most creative and inspiring thoughts and ideas on my long runs.  I have come to places of forgiveness, honesty, love and gratitude within my heart that I did not know was possible – when out for a solo run.

And, of course, keep running with your buddies when you can!  Because they are truly wonderful.  But you are wonderful, too – and you make a great running companion for yourself every now and then also!

SOooooo… tell me: do you like to run alone or with buddies?  Do you think it is important to log some solo miles while training for a big race?  What tricks do you have for making solo long runs more bearable and easier to endure?  How do you strengthen your mental muscle??