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Who Needs an Off-Season? You.

Share the trail love:
Keely Henninger

By: Keely Henninger

Professional Trail Runner | Scientist 👩‍🔬 | Fighting for athletes to treat their bodies with respect. Co-host of Trail Society Podcast.

Maximizing rest and recovery could be the secret to next season’s success.


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It’s October, the chill in the air and the rustle of the leaves can only mean one thing – trail and ultra-season is coming to an end for most of us. While some have already planned to bite off a fall race like JFK or World Mountain Running Championships, a lot of us may be caught in limbo. Do we try to cram in another race or FKT before the new year? Do we push the envelope to recover from our last ultra as fast as possible and try to squeeze in one more event, or do we stockpile all our bucket-list races into an overly cramped 2023 season?

It is so easy to fall into this trap, rushing – pushing – cramming, in the sport of trail and ultrarunning. There are races we can enter every weekend of the year. My 2018 season, while successful, consisted of 7 races; two longer than 100km, two 50-milers, and three 50kms, and ultimately led to my first big injury. In comparison, Eliud Kipchoge runs two marathons per year and has been able to do so for the past nine years. When I think of my 2018 season, and many other action-packed seasons in the past, I can’t help but feel a little naive. Seven races over marathon distance in one-year! The GOAT does two. While I think trail and ultra-running may lend itself to racing a bit more than twice a year, there are some things to consider when looking to hop into that final race of the season or let loose on UltraSignup for 2023.

The Injured Runner

Given the nature of the sport, it shouldn’t come as a shock that ultrarunning comes with a high prevalence of injury. In 2015, a study conducted by a research group in Thessaloniki, Greece found that 90% of the ultrarunners they studied had suffered at least one injury in their trail/ultra-running career so far (8). Astonishingly, trail and ultrarunners are estimated to experience upwards of seven injuries per 1,000 hours of running time (15). Doing the math, if you run ~10 hours per week for 100 weeks (about 2 years), that is 1,000 hours. Suddenly it’s easy to see how common place injuries are in the ultrarunning community.

Trail and ultrarunning allow us to explore and run through new, and often mountainous places, which can mean running on uneven terrain with a lot of elevation change for multiple hours on end. That comes at a cost. Repetitive downhill running has been shown to increase the braking forces during landing by upwards of 108% compared to running on a level surface, and increases neuromuscular fatigue and muscle damage (2,4). While running uphill decreases the impact force on our body, it requires increases in energy demand, propulsive force through the ankle (to push your center of mass up the hill), and muscle recruitment (2,4). This is because uphill and downhill running require different patterns of movement through the lower limbs compared to flat running (4). Finally, running on uneven terrain has been shown to be upwards of 5% more metabolically costly than running on flat, even terrain (16). In essence, running on undulating, uneven terrain for hours on end demands a lot of different types of endurance and strength from key parts of the body and the damage, fatigue, and altered mechanics can carry over for multiple days (at least 3-4days) after an extreme endurance event (11). The impacts ultra-endurance racing has on physiology is still being studied, but some of the initial research shows potential negative impacts to the liver and heart, decreased lung capacity and function (in males), and GI distress and bleeding (7,15). It is not yet known how these acute impacts (immediately post event) affect long term health.

While the sport of trail and ultrarunning is extremely fun, challenging, and *insert your why here* – It’s important to be mindful of the stress it puts on our bodies. Doing so will allow us to participate in the sport longer and hopefully prevent us from being sidelined with injury as often. Commence recovery!

Katylyn Gerbin enjoys a coffee

The Importance of Recovery

“I had a bad race so I don’t need to recover.”
“I only raced a 50km so I don’t need any days off afterwards.”

It’s likely you have thought something similar at some point during your running career. However, recent research shows that regardless of pace, covering 100-kilometers, had similar negative impacts on physiology and muscle damage (6). Running your fastest 100-kilometer or your slowest still demands your body to be moving for hours on end. While the slower 100-kilometer may have taken longer and potentially had a lower energy cost, you were still out there on your feet and the toll on the body and mind was still extremely high. In fact, a longer duration race can result in an increased amount of negative health outcomes compared to completing the race in less time (6,9). Most of these negative impacts linger for at least 3-4 days, so taking time off from running is extremely important for all runners after big races, regardless of how the race went.

Another way to jump start recovery is to focus on fueling. Adequate nutrition has been shown to speed up recovery and improve post-race fatigue and soreness (12,14). You can jump start by it by staying on top of nutrition before you even reach the finish line. A new review compiled by scientists out of the University of Leon found that athletes who consume a high amount of carbohydrates, roughly 90 grams per hour, during long endurance activity have reduced muscle damage and fatigue biomarkers, and increased recovery after ultra-endurance events (1). Crossing that finish line feels amazing, but the celebration should really start after you consume a protein rich beverage or snack, since consuming protein after exercise helps decrease muscle soreness and fatigue (12). It is also important to focus on consuming additional calories during the days surrounding the race. This allows you to make up the caloric deficit you fall into from tackling long hard efforts, and improves recovery (14). Constant energy deficits impair the body’s ability to recover because there is just not enough energy to go around.

If you are sitting there shaking your head, thinking: “Man, Keely, this just sounds like we are participating in an eating competition.

You are spot on! If eating, and eating a lot, is good enough for Killian Jornet, it is good enough for all of us! If you didn’t see his post-UTMB twitter thread, check that out here. Key takeaway? Eat. Eat. Eat. Eat. Eat.

What Even is an Off-Season?
*cue scary music*

Most trail and ultrarunners do not seem to know what that word means. Those that do, are afraid of it. But cast your gaze to Europe, and most top trail and ultrarunning athletes grab their skis in the winter and leave their dirty, battered trail shoes by the door for months on end. Taking time off from sport is important. Breaks in a season can help you recover physically and psychologically, work on physical imbalances, and ensure a better work-life balance (10). The off-season can be a time that breaks up our training, lets our body rest, and allows us to avoid burnout or overtraining that can result in (avoidable) injury (10). A solid off-season should be a set amount of time without running, followed by a time of unstructured easy training to work on weaknesses, develop strength, and regain motivation and fitness (read: back to basics). I typically take at minimum two weeks off from running every winter to give my body the break it needs. While I used to avoid down-time like the plague, I now embrace it every winter with open arms. Time I don’t have to take because I’m injured, but instead time I want to take!

One thing I have learned to prioritize, especially in my off-season when it is not always a top priority, is sleep. Adequate (quantity and quality) sleep is critical for proper recovery, repair, and regeneration of damaged tissues (3). Too little sleep has been shown to increase risk for injury (1.7x) and decrease neurocognition and performance (13). In a world where we all are juggling a lot of things, sleep is often the thing that gets cut, but even adding another 30-60 minutes a night can be enough to get us over the hump.

The off-season is also a great time to get into the gym. Improving sport specific skills during the off-season has been shown to improve confidence and motivation in athletes (5). Strength training allows us to build strength (good for those climbs, downhills, and uneven surfaces!) and work on imbalances while still experiencing structure and community.

The off-season doesn’t have to be scary. It can be your superpower, a crucial part of training, and time to recharge before your next season. If we plan for an off-season, we will be more likely to start the next season recharged, refreshed, and strong.

A group of trail runners enjoy a bite together before UTMB

How to Plan Out a Season

Before you get clicker happy on UltraSignup and start overcompensating for what you wanted but maybe didn’t get done in 2022, think holistically about how you want to approach the new season. Will I grow with this schedule? Will this race calendar give me ample time to recover? Will I be rushed to ‘bounce back’ and not be worried about the next race?

Having an injury in the first half of the year eliminated the rest of my 2022 season. This had me revving my engine, hungry to start racing again as soon as possible. However, I know doing too much too soon is a recipe for disaster. So with an exhale and keeping the big picture in mind I have been trying to build out my 2023 with some tips that are top of mind.

  • Build your race season around 1-2 key races that are spaced out by a full training cycle and full recovery cycle
  • Use 1-2 shorter/tuneup races to get ready for the key races with ample time in between them to account for recovery and any setbacks.
  • Build in a short down-season in the middle of your race calendar to break up your training blocks .
    • For example, I may race a key race in June and another in December. July should be a low volume month which allows for a proper reset after the build up to June. Then I can start a build up for the key race in December feeling fresh.
  • Account for an off-season and a proper build back.
    • Give yourself at least one week completely off from running (I typically take 2-3 weeks) followed by a couple weeks of extremely low, fun, flexible mileage.
    • After a down cycle, don’t rush back into a race, instead give yourself ample time (12-16 weeks) to build back up to being race ready.

The sport of trail and ultrarunning is invigorating and motivating, but it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of it all. I invite you to take some extra time this fall (ideally with a big cup of coffee) to assess your 2022 season, and what you are looking to accomplish in 2023. So take an extra sip of coffee before you click “sign-up!” for the umpteenth race and pause to remember you have a long-term vision for your ultrarunning. Your future self will thank you later.


References

(1) Arribalzaga,S., et al. Relationship of Carbohydrate Intake during a Single-Stage One-Day Ultra-Trail Race with Fatigue Outcomes and Gastrointestinal Problems: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, 5737 (2021)

(2) Bontemps, B., et al. Downhill Running: What Are The Effects and How Can We Adapt? A Narrative Review. Sports Med 50, 2083-2110 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-020-01355-z

(3) Chennaoui M., et al. How does sleep help recovery from exercise-induced muscle injuries? J Sci Med Sport 24(10):982-987. (2021). Epub. PMID: 34074604.

(4) Gottschall JS, Kram R. Ground reaction forces during downhill and uphill running. J Biomech. 38:445–52 (2005)

(5) Jones, M., et al. Psychological Correlates of Performance in Female Athletes During a 12-Week Off-Season Strength and Conditioning Program. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24(3):619-628 (2010). doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cc23c3

(6) Jörres M, Gunga HC, Steinach M. Physiological Changes, Activity, and Stress During a 100-km-24-h Walking-March. Front Physiol. 11(12):640-710 (2021). doi: 10.3389/fphys.2021.640710. PMID: 33776795; PMCID: PMC7991843.

(7) Knechtle B, Nikolaidis PT. Physiology and Pathophysiology in Ultra-Marathon Running. Front Physiol. 9:634 (2018). doi: 10.3389/fphys.2018.00634. PMID: 29910741; PMCID: PMC5992463.

(8) Malliaropoulos, N., et al. Prevalence of Injury in Ultra Trail Running. Human Movement. 16:52-59 (2015).

(9) Martínez-Navarro I, Collado E, Hernando C, Hernando B, Hernando C. Inflammation, muscle damage and postrace physical activity following a mountain ultramarathon. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 61(12):1668-1674 (2021). doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.21.11977-2. PMID: 33555667.

(10) Pereira, Sonali, Swathi Vinod, and Akshaya Periasamy. “Off-Season break, quality of life & sport satisfaction among elite Indian athletes.” World Health 33 (2003).

(11) Rubio-Arias JÁ.,et al. Muscle damage and inflammation biomarkers after two ultra-endurance mountain races of different distances: 54 km vs 111 km. Physiol Behavi. 205:51-57 (2019). doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.10.002.

(12) Saunders MJ., et al. Protein Supplementation During or Following a Marathon Run Influences Post-Exercise Recovery. Nutrients. 10, 3:333 (2018). doi: 10.3390/nu10030333. PMID: 29534444; PMCID: PMC5872751.

(13) Simpson, N. S. , Gibbs, E. L. & Matheson, G. O. Optimizing sleep to maximize performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 27(3) 266:274 (2017).. doi: 10.1111/sms.12703.

(14) Tiller, N.B., Roberts, J.D., Beasley, L. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: nutritional considerations for single-stage ultra-marathon training and racing. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 16, 50 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-019-0312-9

(15) Tiller NB, Wheatley-Guy CM, Fermoyle CC, Robach P, Ziegler B, Gavet A, Schwartz JC, Taylor BJ, Constantini K, Murdock R, Johnson BD, Stewart GM. Sex-Specific Physiological Responses to Ultramarathon. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 54(10):1647-1656 (2022). doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002962. PMID: 35653262.

(15) Videbæk S, Bueno AM, Nielsen RO, Rasmussen S. Incidence of Running-Related Injuries Per 1000 h of running in Different Types of Runners: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 45(7):1017-26 (2015). doi: 10.1007/s40279-015-0333-8. PMID: 25951917; PMCID: PMC4473093.

(16) Voloshina AS, Ferris DP. Biomechanics and energetics of running on uneven terrain. J Exp Biol. 218(Pt 5):711-9 (2015). doi: 10.1242/jeb.106518 PMID: 25617451.

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