One of the hardest questions for any runner to answer right now, is “what’s the next race on your calendar?” Because we want to both laugh and cry when we say, “who the hell knows at this point.” Some of us might have hopeful, tentative dates marked on the calendar that we are training for, just in case. Some of us might have taken the opposite approach, internally saying “screw it” until we know that races are feasible. But regardless of where we’re at right now, every runner has that in between time races. The period between training blocks, where it can be hard to find motivation to maintain fitness.
And honestly, letting go of a little fitness after a big race is not a big deal. Especially in the grand scheme of things. But if you are a runner who wants to maximize this in between time, you may want to figure out the best and most efficient way to maintain fitness between races. Luckily, cardiovascular fitness is fairly easy to maintain; a lot less difficult than it is to build anyway.
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So, when you find yourself in that in between space, here’s what you can do if you want to stay as fit as possible. It can certainly go a long way towards making the next training block a little more manageable.
How to Maintain Fitness Between Races
Maintain a Running Base
Seems pretty intuitive, right? If you want to maintain fitness between marathons, half-marathons, or shorter distances, continuing to run is definitely going to be part of the plan. This certainly doesn’t mean you need to pick back up where you left off before your race. That would actually be fairly ill-advised, as your body does need some time to recover.
My personal recommendation is to take the next shortest distance from the one you just ran, and make that your weekly long run goal. So, if you just ran a half-marathon, you’ll want to shoot for 5-7 mile long runs, since the 10k is the next lowest distance. Then map out the rest of the week to have shorter runs that feel comfortable to you. You’ll want to vary it slightly, and give yourself a cut back week every 3 weeks or so.
You can also drop a day of training, if you want to have a little more balance or flexibility in your schedule than you did previously. My husband tells me sometimes people like to do things other than run and work, but I’m still skeptical. However, if you were previously running 5x a week, shoot for 4. If you’re feeling motivated and energetic, you can always add that 5th run back in.
Continuing to run will help your body maintain aerobic conditioning. Reducing the overall mileage will allow your body and brain to rest, which is definitely an important part of the in between time. Your joints and relationships will be much appreciative.
Incorporate Cross Training
Most training plans have designated days for cross-training activities like cycling, rowing, or swimming. These activities stimulate the cardiovascular system, but use different muscles to help your body feel slightly less beat up. As you move into longer distances, some training plans will drop a significant amount of cross-training to allow you to capitalize on running improvements.
It’s a good way to get ready for a race, but it can also be a great way to burn the heck out. Especially if you are not someone who just loves to run as much as they can every day. It can also make even the best runners more susceptible to overuse injuries, especially as the amount of time lengthens. All bad things, right? Well, this is exactly why coaches recommend a little downtime between training blocks.
In between races is a great time to give yourself the flexibility to pursue other fitness adventures, even if you ultimately decide running is your main jam. My recommendation for clients is to take 1 or 2 days that were previously scheduled for running, and replace them with a different athletic activity. Some of my clients like to use that day to try out different activities like swimming, rowing, hiking, or heck even something like paddle-boarding!
Your body is still moving, your heart is still pumping, and as long as your athletic endeavor of choice isn’t something like marble racing (I saw it on ESPN yesterday, so I guess that’s where we’re at with sports right now), you’ll still reap fitness rewards. And your knees won’t hate you!
Keep Up Strength Work
Now, you may think that I covered this recommendation in my previous cross-training point. But you’d be wrong. It happens to the best of us. The difference between strength training and cross-training is subtle, but important. Cross-training is focused on maintaining cardio fitness; strength training is focused on maintaining or building muscle mass.
Can you do both at the same time? Possibly. Especially if you opt for something like a boot-camp or Orange Theory type of workout that mixes both strength and cardio. But if you decide to do something like swimming as cross-training, you’re going to need to set a couple hours a week aside for additional strength work. Even in the in between time.
Running can be hard on the body. Racing even more so. Incorporating strength work into your routine can help build muscle mass that you might have previously lost during training blocks. It can also really help you start your next training cycle from a place of strength. And if you’re worried about becoming “too bulky” by incorporating strength work, let me happily tell you it takes a LOT of intentional effort to build visible muscle.
I promise you that throwing in some squats, push-ups, or lunges will not suddenly change your body to resemble the Hulk. It would take years of high-rep, heavy weights workouts, in combination with a whole lot of eating. So pick up a kettlebell, barbell, or just check out some body weight exercises, and you might actually see an unplanned improvement in your next race time.
If you need a little inspiration for creating some strength-based programming, please check out my Workouts page.
Run Shorter Races
Nothing makes running a half-marathon feel easier than running a full-marathon. And let’s be honest, while we may not all love training, racing is a hell of a drug. Running long distance races can wear down your body pretty quickly, but running shorter distance races in between long ones can be a good option for keeping the fun without actively participating in digging your own grave.
Long and short are relative terms, so you need to consider where your body is at honestly. Don’t set out to run a half-marathon two weeks after your first full marathon thinking you’re maintaining your fitness. You might be having a great time, but your body is probably screaming for a little rest. Talking to a coach can help you figure it all out if you’re questioning yourself.
Running shorter races can give you an opportunity to focus on improving speed with less chance of injury. It can also give you an opportunity to run a race with a group of friends who may be more reasonable than you are when it comes to endurance running (like my friends who run half-marathons and let me know my ultra’s are ridiculous). Either way, there’s nothing better than race morning, so don’t feel like racing is off the table all together.
Consider Focusing On Other Sports
Look, for some of us, the thought of focusing on trail running, triathlons, basketball, or climbing might sound freaking blasphemous. For others, it might sound like heaven after dedicating months to road training. That doesn’t mean one of us is wrong, thankfully.
But you’ve got to trust your gut on this. I know during my last racing block, I was day dreaming about running easy paces on the trails. I wanted to learn something new and challenge myself in a way that I hadn’t before. So if there’s something you’ve been thinking about trying, but haven’t, the in between time is the perfect opportunity.
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If you realize that you still have a fear of heights, and decide that venturing into rock climbing wasn’t the best move, running will always be here for you. There’s no need to feel like you can’t explore other options. Running is not a contractually binding marriage.
And honestly, you can maintain a lot fitness of if you keep running shorter distances 1-2 days a week in addition to your time spent exploring other sports. And you might start your next training cycle a little more out of shape than if you had been running more, but mentally much more invested. I can’t say it enough; trust your instincts. If your instincts say to keep running, keep running. If your gut says to carve out the time to join a pickleball league instead, then dust off the old New Balances and show those friends at the retirement home who’s boss!
One question that I am frequently asked is how much time to take between marathons or half-marathons. And honestly, this is a difficult question to answer. It really depends on your goals from your last race, and the goals you have for the next. I normally recommend taking a minimum of a month in between training blocks, unless there is a race that you are just dying to run and the calendar doesn’t allow.
But I’ve also coached clients who really only have the opportunity to run 1-2 races a year because of work or family commitments. And that’s completely fine as well. As long as you give your body and your brain enough time to want to start another training cycle, you’ll probably be just fine. And if you want a little more individual advice on this, please feel free to reach out to me via my Contact Me page.
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Are you currently between races? Do you have a hard time maintaining motivation in between, or do you have a more difficult time not stacking the races back to back? I’d love to hear in the comments!