woman wearing a Mueller knee brace while running on a trail through the woods

Off-Season Training for Marathon Runners

Competitive runners are by nature mentally and physically tough. In other words, external conditions, distractions, internal emotions, and weather conditions rarely inhibit their performance. The traits that make runners more apt to be mighty individuals, include:

  • Focus – which enables them to tune in to the job at hand.
  • Preparation – which gives them the strength and knowledge to stay mentally ready.
  • Flexibility – is the state of bouncing back in spite of poor performance, pain, or adversity.
  • Teachability – means the athlete listens to all possibilities, takes feedback, and learns from mistakes.
  • Confidence – is believing that the run at hand is accomplishable.

As track and field athlete Carl Lewis, winner of four consecutive gold medals in the same event at the Olympic Games and named Athlete of the Year in 1982 by Track and Field News, said:

If you don’t have confidence, you’ll always find a way not to win.

Off-season Tips for Runners

Let’s get one thing straight. Not just marathon runners, but runners, in general, do not like to hear the word “offseason.” Most runners feel a little “off” if they do not stay on schedule with their running. It helps if trainers and coaches say the winter months are for taking a break from “structured running.”

1. When marathon runners finish their last run of the season, most experts say they should run easily for a few days after the race. This slower pace will allow athletes to notice any injuries they have probably ignored up to this point. Plantar fasciitis is one of the ailments that can rear its ugly head when an individual slows down and is no longer pushing through the pain.

Plantar Fasciitis

This injury is an inflammation of the thick band of tissue that is found on the bottom of the foot, connecting the heel bone to the toes. The pain is stabbing and usually noticed when an individual takes his or her first steps after awakening. In most cases, the pain decreases over the day but can return due to long periods of standing or after rising from a chair.

  • A series of exercises that stretch the plantar fascia and the Achilles tendon will strengthen the lower leg muscles and stabilize the heel and ankle. Athletic taping can also add support to the sole.
  • A stretch splint to wear while sleeping can hold the plantar fascia tissue, and the Achilles tendon, in a lengthened position overnight.
  • A custom-fitted orthotic used as arch support in shoes can distribute the pressure on soles more evenly, as can support socks.

2. Rest and recovery are crucial for recreational and professional runners. Once athletes get over thinking that days off training will make them less fit, and stop feeling guilty if they don’t run every day, a few days of complete rest will begin to make sense. They will understand that the intensity of training creates a demand for more rest. Light workout days are for working out in a less intense and lower level than usual. The time periods of these light workouts will also need to be shorter.

Gloria Petruzzelli, clinical sports psychologist, and runner, says even elite athletes take time away from training and understand they will not be in peak condition year-round.

3. Winter is the right time for strength training which, of course, can be accomplished indoors. Strength training will improve running times, assist in preventing injuries, improve bone density, and increase a runner’s range of motion.

Rest days can also include:

  • Stretching
  • Light jogging
  • Working on running form (a trainer or conditioning coach can assist with this)
  • Hill running
  • Stadium steps running
  • Interval work
  • Sprinting
  • Cross-train

Anyone can train hard. Do you have the discipline to recover? – Lauren Fleshman, 7th in the World Championships 5k 2011

Patellar Tendinitis

The kneecap (patella) is surrounded by a thick tendon that connects the large quadriceps muscle on the front of the thigh while the bottom of the cord attaches to the front of the shinbone (tibia). When the tendon sheath receives tiny tears because of long distance runs, this stress can result in swelling. The body is attempting to heal itself and pain is likely a part of the procedure. Trying to push through this pain can increase the number of tears and make some of the old tears worse. This trouble can lead to tendinopathy, a difficult-to-heal injury.

How to Avoid Patellar Tendinitis (Jumper’s Knee)

The development of the injury is caused by:

  • Ill-fitting or inappropriate footwear
  • Inappropriate surfaces
  • Training mistakes (running too far, too long, too fast, and training too much)
  • Muscle strength imbalance (flat feet, lax knee joints, previous knee injuries)
  • Poor running form

Treatment methods for patellar tendinitis include:

  • Decreasing inflammation
  • Proper rest time
  • Eliminating factors that led to the injury
  • Orthotics
  • Anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling
  • Ice massage if cleared with coach and trainer
  • Stretching
  • Yoga and Pilates for balance and stability
  • Shortening running stride

According to Denise Smith, an injury prevention specialist and physical therapist:

The knee is the weakest joint in the lower body. So when something is off in the chain — either from the ankle up or the hip down — the knee (and everything around it) has to work overtime.

4. Another way to think about offseason training is to consider it as not only a time of recovery but one of preparation also. Constant training leads to increased stress, one of the main contributors to burnout, and injury. The time put into exercising without running is going to make returning to pre-run training easier, safer, better, and will result in gains that will impress even the best of marathon runners.

5. Offseason is a beautiful time to try some kinesiology treatments. This method is non-invasive and can assist in reducing stress and pain, improving performance, and promoting health and well-being. By using muscle feedback and body awareness, kinesiologists can determine how a person handles emotional and mental stress.

EASYFIT® Kinesiology Tape

These pre-cut tapes and rolls of tape support muscles and joints but do not limit the range of motion. The revolutionary wave pattern adhesive moves when a person moves and helps with healing. The tape application is done in patterns that simulate muscles; is made of a latex-free material, and includes six applications. Mueller Sports Medicine also offers a free Kinesiology eBook for its customers, with taping techniques included.

6. Winter is an excellent time to try out some compression socks. The idea behind this type of sock is that veins, arteries, and muscles are compressed, and the blood circulates through the legs through smaller circulatory channels. Blood gets to the heart more quickly, and runners are less likely to have their blood pool into their feet. When graduated compression (compression that is tighter around the ankle and less compressed around the knee) is used, the stockings can be an outstanding tool for better blood circulation. For runners, compression socks are designed to reduce muscle soreness, muscle fatigue, and swelling.

Graduated Compression Leg Sleeves

Mueller Sports Medicine carries graduated compression leg sleeves for increased oxygen and blood circulation in a runner’s feet, legs, and ankles. The fabric used in the leg sheath also reduces muscle vibration which often leads to soreness and fatigue. The sleeve’s material is durable, breathable, odor resistant, antimicrobial, and moisture-wicking. Nathan Freeburg said on his blog, Minneapolis Running, that his experience with compression socks impacted him in this way:

My legs felt better than they normally would after each activity. I felt less sore and more “recovered.” It was as if 1,000 little fingers were giving me a calf massage. While my experience is hardly conclusive evidence that compression socks work, there’s no denying that these things are comfortable to wear. At this stage in my training (two weeks before marathon day), feeling less sore and more energized is exactly what I need.

Freeburg added that, in his opinion, compression socks especially help if a person is sitting for a long time, such as traveling to or from a marathon. The increased blood circulation in the legs is also a boon to people on long flights.

7. Offseason training can be a time to catch up with your life. So many necessary activities and relationships are shelved during racing season training and participation. Offseason can include time for:

  • Rebalancing your personal growth
  • Fun activities
  • Home improvement projects
  • Spending time with your family
  • Becoming mindful
  • Finding your purpose
  • Hiking
  • Vacationing

You need to take a mental break. Do things you normally wouldn’t or couldn’t do when you’re in intense training. – Scott Larson, Marathon Champion