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Why Runners Need Off-Seasons & Maintenance Seasons…and no, they're not the same thing.

By now, in the middle of December you might be wrapping up your recovery time from your late fall marathons. Your legs are recovered; you're feeling nice and fresh; you're itching to get moving again!

Perfect time to hop back into training mode right? Eh, Maybe not.

Like everything, it depends.

Some runners are continuing their off season.

Others are embracing maintenance season.

Others are just…running. And trying to brave the cold (if you know, you know).

Are any of those scenarios technically "wrong"?

Not really.

But your body will sure let you know.




A feeling of bone-dead exhaustion and lead legs.

Yup, your body is pretty smart, and sometimes, it doesn't care what the science says. It just needs to rest!

If you're thoroughly confused and don't know what to do this post-race running season, allow me to introduce to you 2 options.

Off season.


Maintenance season.

I often hear these used interchangeably (and maybe they are for some runners), but in my head, as a runner and rehab specialist, they're completely difference, yet similar.

(I know, that didn't help the situation. I'm sorry, that's just how science works…)

Let's dive into what these are, how to use them, how to transition from one into the other, and what you should be doing in these different seasons of running.



This occurs after your race season or any hard training season. So think after you've wrapped up your serious races for the year where you were chasing a PR or trying a new distance.

How long:

It depends. It ranges from 2-8 weeks.

If you've run any race of a longer distance, than you know general rule of thumb is 1 day off for every mile raced. Ex: 26.2 marathon = 26 days (roughly 4 weeks). However, it can be longer! Because remember, no two runners are exactly alike. So there is no shame in taking 8 weeks off instead of 4.


To bask in the glow of your accomplishments.

The end.

Drop mic.

Exit stage left.

Ok, ok, in all seriousness… take a look at your training log on your watch, in your training journal, or just look at your finished training plan.

You did ALL THAT!

Look at and acknowledge all the work, hustle, sweat, tears, and maybe some blood, you put into the past months!

Now remember: all of that work was accomplished technically through stress and load.

Your body accomplished everything leading up to your races by tearing down muscle and building stronger muscle. By created new blood vessels and making more blood to carry more oxygen and take away more waste products from those new muscles. Your body did all that building up, and then, it gave it all on race day, which was a bigger stressor than ANY of your workouts!

Does that start to put the off season into context?

Your body has EARNED the rest! And more importantly, it NEEDS the rest.

You can only train has hard as you recovery (courtesy of Elisabeth from @runningexplained).

Damn, is she spot on.

This off season period is the time where your body rebuilds and gets ready to push it to the next level. Now is the time where it repairs all the aches and pains you might have experienced last training season. That doesn't mean you'll come out of off season magically cured of true muscular weakness (sorry, you still gotta put in the work to get stronger).

Off season means you come out ready and capable of reaping the gains of putting in the work. The Off season is mandatory to building a new and improved foundation.

What should I do?

It depends. (I promise, I'm not trying to be a pain in your booty…)

But it really does depend. And if you're genuinely honest with yourself, you KNOW the answer.

Ask yourself:

How did my training or race season go? Was I rocking it out, feeling strong and recovered, or was I flirting with injury and just duct-tapping myself together so I could hobble through my races?

If you find you were mentally or physically exhausted, then I would encourage you to spend at least half of your off season doing either very easy, light, short runs OR NO RUNS and instead, still get your cardio done through low-impact options (hiking, rowing, cycling, elliptical) etc. Use this opportunity to play; explore; try something new!

What do I mean by easy, light, short distance runs…this will also vary based on your specific weekly mileage An easy equation for those looking for specifics: Your weekly training mileage divided by 10 will give you the max distance you can run right now while you're recovering. Respect the run and respect your body.

What else can you focus on?

  • Injury rehab (now is a great time to do PT!)

  • Active recovery, low-impact type activity discussed above

  • Mobility work that you might have been neglecting

  • Core strength

What shouldn't I do?

Keep training hard core. Lifting heavy, cross training like crazy, no rest days, long runs, …grind, grind, grind.

As a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I would even go as far as you can take a (short) break from your strength training.

(I know, I know, who am I…?)

But here's why.

When we strength train in an overload capacity (meaning you lift heavy stuff to fatigue and you can't do it anymore), you are breaking down muscle.

This is not the time or season for breaking down.

This is the time for re-building.

Even if you lift "lightly" (higher reps, lighter weight) you are still technically breaking down muscle tissues.

Now, the flip side is your body is resilient.

You know your body best, and if your body has consistently demonstrated that it tolerates a lighter weight, higher rep workout very well and you know your limitations, then please proceed. Because like I said before, no two runners are exactly alike.

But please use this as permission to put your heavy-duty strength program on the back burner for now. (

I'd still throw in some core work though 3x a week…let's not get too lazy here.)

How do I know it's time to transition into maintenance?

When your prescribed off season is OVER!

When you've rested for 4-8 weeks and you’re feeling ready to tackle the world!

  • There's no aches or pains or soreness.

  • You are mentally refreshed and you're legit excited to start training again.

  • The run isn't a grind anymore-it's a gift.

  • And your body feels ready to embrace it again.

But what if you're not?

What if that exhaustion, that lead-leg feeling, or mental fog is still there?

What if you're still fatigued and you just want to sleeeeep…

Then go ahead and add another week or 2 to your off-season.

There's no shame in knowing your body and setting yourself up for future success.

You've got this and the run is always waiting for you.



Immediately following your off-season.


To start the beginning of your re-build.

To claim your come back.

Maintenance season to me as a runner and physical therapist, is about laying the first layer on top of the foundation of your off-season.

Your offseason was the time to allow soft tissues and lurking injuries to heal from the stressful (but fun load!) of running. Your maintenance season is about starting to smartly add that load back.


Because our tissues (muscle, bone, tendon, ligament, etc!) require load to heal.

That is the biggest rehab "secret."

Our tissues actually require load, the right amount of hard work, to heal.

And that's my job as a physical therapist. To prescribe the correct amount of load or weight to assist your body in healing. And that's why I kind of love maintenance season.

Because this is where we get stronger.

This is where we finish healing.

This is the time to run for fun and to show up for our strength, cross training, and mobility sessions.

I mean, there's also the obvious benefits of "keep the fitness you gained during your race season". And this is true, up to a point.

Will you lose some fitness because you're NOT training at the same intensity or frequency?


But you also physiologically could NOT continue to do so anyway-you're body would eventually break down.

So please, embrace the ebb and flow of the training cycle and don't give into the pressure of "you have to keep all your fitness!". The fitness is there. You've already achieved it once, twice, how many times before?! In order for your body to access that same peak fitness again, it needs the time to repair first.

How long:

It depends. Some runners may only need 2 weeks, but I prefer a 6-8weeks minimum before spring races OR longer, with your maintenance lasting up till the start of your training plan for summer/fall races.

What can I do?

This is the fun part... you get to start running more!

Well, at least in comparison to your off-season.

In reality, you are adding back mileage, but slowly and surely. A good rule is to keep your total training load lower than 50% of what it was during your season training.0

Remember, we're limiting intensity and decreasing your mileage to allow your body to continue to heal with the right amount of load (aka. hard work).

So what do you do in the mean time?

Take advantage of the opportunities lower mileage provides. Since you don't have double digit runs to recover from, NOW is the time to build some strength.

That being said, strength training is still a training load.

(I know, this can get confusing…)

If you're new to strength training as a runner:

  • start easy

  • learn the process

  • enjoy the journey!

  • You're gonna be sore, but you should still have adequate recovery time between workouts since your runs are not the primary load right now and you have extra rest days.

If you're a veteran runner-weight lifter:

  • know your body

  • get swole.

  • Just keep in mind, don't bro-out every lift. Because again, heavy weight lifting still tears down muscles and requires recovery to build them back up.

This is where having a specific lifting + running + maintenance plan for any runner is so beneficial compared to winging-it if you truly are looking to build some strength and take care of nagging injuries from the previous race season. With a structured plan, you can adapt as needed and add in or move rest days as required based on your response to your previous workout.

What else can you do?


  • In maintenance season, I still suggest erring on the side of caution with more low-impact activities, but make it fun! For me: maintenance season includes a lot of skiing and lifting.

  • Remember, this is your time to have fun, run because you love it, enjoy the feeling of moving your body, and just let your mind breath outside the restrictions of a firm training program.

  • Now is also a stellar time to either maintain your mobility OR get serious about addressing any mobility restrictions you have.

Why? Because any mobility deficits that tend to happen as a result of running, may start to peak out at this point as you increase your mileage, providing you with the perfect opportunity to test out what mobility exercises work for you exactly! Don't be afraid to test out new ones, throw out old ones! Now is the time to experiment and completely nail the mobility routine that works best for your body.

  • That being said, I know you still want to feel like a runner, not a gym bro. Soooo…don't forget about working on your speed and sequencing.

Not speed work!

Your speed sequencing. (Sequencing is how well and coordinated you move with you're moving quickly. You may be able to move and run fast, but can you do it well? check out my blog post HERE to read more about this!)

Yup, now is a great time to practice these drills and routines in an easy capacity, either 1-2x a week. Just live in the movements and allow these to naturally improve your form and sync your new strength gains with your overall running performance.

I promise, come training season, you will just feel everything *click!* as a result. I don't know how else to describe it. You're body just *knows* from all the practicing you've done how to use its fullest potential. It's the coolest thing ever.

What shouldn't I do?

Intense running workouts such as hill repeats or speed workouts.

Essentially, don't repeat your latest training program or any of the intense workouts during your maintenance season.

But if you have the itch to do a long run because the gloomy winter weather broke for one day and its 40 degrees F and sunny outside,…well, you know, I couldn't blame you. I'd probably cheat right along with you and sneak in a nice long, easy run. Just be sure to recovery well afterwards. SShhh, I won't tell if you don't.

How do I know it's time to transition?

You know it's time to transition from maintenance into either a base building or training program when your races are finally in the near future.

You may or may not need a base building program if your first race and training plan dove tail nicely with where you've been at with maintenance-meaning, the mileage jump from maintenance into training isn't drastic; it's an appropriate increase and build (ex: roughly up to a 10% increase in mileage and/or intensity every week, etc)

But you're coming out of maintenance and looking to tackle a whole new distance or higher speed race, then you're probably going to need a stepping stone between where you are and where you want to be-this is your base building phase. Base building helps create the foundation for your training program. Because, what could happen otherwise, is if you hop from maintenance right into a training program, the mileage jump or quick increase in intensity can lead to injury now or later. Neither are fun.

So training plans may get all the glory, but those runners that crush their PRs and running goals, are the ones who put in the recovery time.

Because recovery takes just as much discipline as a training program, maybe even more, because you don't always have those constant pace goals, running workouts to tick off your calendar.

But you know what?

It's all worth it in the end.

Respect your body. Respect the run. Embrace the seasons and…Dare to Train Differently.

Run Strong, running fit fam,

Dr. Marie Whitt //@

P.S. Looking for a place to start with maintenance workouts for runners? Have you grabbed your free running guide yet? "Finding the Missing Link in Your Running and the 4 Circuits to Fix Them" Use the workouts in my guide and start there!

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