Thursday, 17 October 2013

The importance of taking an end of season break

Hands up if you take a proper end of season break ? And I don't mean a couple of days cross training before launching into a slightly shorter long run. But more of a proper kenyan style 2 months back at the shamba catching up with friends and fattening up the animals as well as yourself ? Ok, so that's probably a bit extreme as well in the age of the professional runner who needs to race regularly to make a living but it does illustrate the point about when is a break a break.

Watching Mo Farah being interviewed on BBC this week was a good reminder about just how important this is. Asked about what he had been doing recently he said a couple of weeks holiday with his family, eating stuff he doesn't normally eat and adding 3 kgs. The interviewer looked a bit surprised at this and asked if he had been doing any running - No, none was the reply.

October is the time of year when people are coming back from their end of season breaks (or not) and watching how they are running is fascinating from a coaching pointing view. It tells you a lot about how they have recovered from their last period of training and more immportantly their prospects for the season ahead.

You've got the ones who didn't bother with a break because hey, rest is for whimps. They are still running OK and over the coming months will start to struggle with a plateau in performance then illness and injury before being forced to take the break which they should have had earlier. Inevitably the break will be longer and at just the wrong moment in their build up for a really important race. This will be put down to ''bad luck" and guess what, the pattern will repeat itself in future as the lessons fail to get learned.

Then you've got those who took a break but perhaps only a short one to recharge the batteries before launching into a fairly hard block of training. They are either running really well already as they add some extra endurance onto a summer base of speed or they got hurt almost straight away as they increased their training load again. The ones who navigated the transition and stayed healthy could well be flying by November and keep this going into the New Year. I did this in 1998 - PBs on the track in the summer, short break then spent the autumn/winter doing twice weekly Frank sessions at Battersea and racing brilliantly before running out of steam in Feb and breaking down completely in March. Some early season glory but I came up short when it mattered and missed out making the World Cross Team when I had my best chance as wasn't around at a all in summer when I should have been taking more chunks off my PBs.

And then their are a third group of runners who've taken a proper end of season break of 2-3 weeks, possibly added a little bit of weight (but still stayed in shape) and totally recharged themselves mentally as well as physically. Their return to training is a bit sluggish and laboured and they will often wonder how on earth they could be so far away from top fitness (in reality they aren't, it just feels like it). When they start up again the training is crucial. Remember the principles of training/de-training. One of the things that reverses fastest when you stop is the neuro-muscular co-ordination. So this means that those wonderful smooth/efficient/powerful movement patterns that you have spent time developing need re-programming before you increase your training load too much - otherwise you risk using muscles incorrectly and injury will follow. So it requires patience, perhaps a 4-6 week block where you focus on re-establishing great movement patterns and gradually building the training load (volume/intensity) before you really get down to the winters hard work.

So what gets in the way of taking the third approach ? Often its a simple anxiety along the lines of "if im not training hard then i'm losing fitness" which prevents people taking a proper break and then starting up again gradually. You need to think a bit longer term. Its like climbing a mountain. Climb up, establish a base camp, then climb to the next level before briefly dropping back to base. Climb again, return to Camp 1 etc, etc. A small step back in the short term enables you to go much higher in future.

Another barrier I see is pressure to race - which generally means clubs, schools, parents, friends telling people to race 'or you will be letting the team down.' And of course if you want to race you want to be fit don't you ? This is really difficult to deal with because in the absence of a support network that really gets long term development the athlete needs to be really strong of character to say no and do what is best for them. For school age children one way around this is to schedule their break at the start of the summer holidays after English Schools Track is over and then use August and September as a 'return to training' month before competion starts again.

So whether you are racing an autumn marathon, peaked for English Schools Track and have just enjoyed a summer of road racing taking a proper break followed by a well thought through return to training is absolutely critical to continued long term progression. And if you are still not sure, listen to Mo.

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