Maintenance Running Plan for the Off-Season

A maintenance running plan can help you maintain stress levels and fitness during the off season or busy holiday season. You want to have cardiovascular stimulus at least three times a week for at least 30 minutes. Read on to learn more about how to stay fit in the least amount of time so you are ready to tackle your running goals!

If you are reading this because you just finished your goal race—CONGRATULATIONS!! Winter is a perfect time to settle into a maintenance running plan with the goal of staying fit, healthy, and balancing stress.

Whitney Heins running in a winter hat outside
Just a few runs a week can help maintain fitness this winter!

The winter, especially during the holiday season, is a perfect time to embrace running for all its mental health benefits. (I write about how to run to help stress levels here.)

This time of year is so busy and more family-focused than ever. Trying to maintain an intense marathon training schedule during travel to visit family, cooking large meals, planning or attending big holiday parties, volunteering at your kids’ school holiday events, holiday shopping, wrapping up end-of-year work projects—it’s just too much.

Running intensely will only add to your stress levels, not take it away.

winter running tights whitney running
Winter is the perfect time to embrace unstructured running when demands are high and the temps are low.

Related: How to Tell If You Are Running Too Much

The season of maintenance running

This is why many of the athletes I coach are now entering a maintenance running plan. Their schedules are flexible with a lot of what I call “mindless miles.” The miles are easy and movable—with some guidelines. For example, no clumping several run days together without a rest day. If you typically run 5 days a week, I don’t want those 5 days run consecutively. I would rather you take an extra rest day than squeeze in the miles (and get hurt).

To use running as a tool to manage your stress means easy running without a lot of taxing long runs and workouts. Running to manage your stress levels while staying fit means following what is called a running maintenance plan or an off-season running plan. It’s very unstructured and meant to meet your needs that day:

If you need what I call a “rage run”—run hard. Get it out. (Just make sure you run easy the next day!). If you need to just shuffle your feet and listen to Bon Iver ballads, do it.

If you have no idea what that looks like and no clue as to how much you need to run to maintain fitness, I am here to help.

In this article, I will cover:

  • What is maintenance running?
  • How much running do you need to maintain fitness?
  • What is the purpose of a running maintenance plan?
  • Who should do a running maintenance plan?
  • How long should a running maintenance plan be?
  • What should be included in an off-season running plan?
  • And a sample running maintenance plan.

Let’s go!

Related: Why You Should Take Time Off From Running

What is maintenance running?

Maintenance running means that you run a minimum amount to maintain a base level of fitness, rather than trying to increase your fitness. Running a maintenance plan or off-season running plan helps you maintain your fitness while allowing your brain and body to take a break.

It also sets you up to begin more intense training when the time is right.

To be honest, sometimes training for a race can feel stifling. When you are on the marathon training train, it can be so stressful trying to hang on with everyone else swirling around you. And that’s when running becomes stress-inducer instead of stress-relieving, which we do not want!

running maintenance plan pin
Pin this running maintenance plan for later!

Specifically, a running maintenance plan helps:

  • Maintain cardiovascular fitness, and muscle, bone, and tendon strength
  • Return hormonal balance
  • Replenish glycogen stores
  • Reinvigorate motivation
  • Promote mental health and run/life balance
  • Prevent overtraining
  • Ward off injuries
  • Provide time to address weaknesses, imbalances, mobility, and strength
  • Bend with the demands of life (unlike marathon training can)

How much running do you need to maintain fitness?

In general, volume can be more than halved in a running maintenance plan and frequency can also be reduced up to half.

There are some studies such as this 2021 article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which finds that endurance performance can be maintained for 15 weeks by only two sessions 13 minutes per week, or a reduction in volume of up to 66.

For VO2 max, a 1985 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology had athletes cut training volume of 6-10 hours a week to just one 35-minute session. These athletes had no reduction in their VO2 max.

running maintenance plan pin
Pin this running maintenance plan for later!

However, these studies were small. According to famed running coach Jack Daniels, it takes about 30 minutes for the physiological benefits of a running session to spur and about three running sessions per week for these benefits to accumulate. Therefore, I recommend a maintenance running plan includes at least three 30-minute running sessions a week—at minimum.

Related: How to Tell if You Are Running Too Much

What is the purpose of a running maintenance plan?

We can’t be in peak training shape all the time. In fact, it’s not healthy to be. Running is a physically demanding sport. Taking a break from running or running a base maintenance plan allows your body to return to homeostasis (including stress hormone levels), replenish glycogen stores, build tissues and bones back up, and give you a mental boost.

Related: Can Running Cause Hormonal Imbalances 

Who should use a running maintenance plan:

You should consider a running maintenance plan if you:

  • Just finished training for a goal race such as a marathon
  • Are entering a busy or stressful time in your life
  • You feel fatigued or unmotivated (or even dread running)
  • Are going through a transitional period in your life and need to get settled before picking up training
  • Training during a particular season is difficult for you (e.g. it’s too cold or too hot)
  • Just want to run for run and don’t want the pressure or structure of training for a goal race
  • Are dealing with health issues that need to normalize

Related: What is a Down Week in Running?

How long should a running maintenance plan be?

A running maintenance plan can be however long you need it to be. I have runners currently in a running maintenance plan that started this summer and is extending into the new year due to the demands of their jobs or extracurricular activities (e.g. coaching youth sports) that make it difficult to train.

On average a maintenance running plan can be anywhere from one to four months. It typically lasts about a season before restarting a training block.

Related: How to Stay in Shape with No Race 

What should be included in an off-season running plan?

An off-season running plan can include at minimum:

  • 3 days of non-consecutive running of at least 30 minutes

An off-season running plan that will maintain a higher level of fitness will include:

  • Reduced volume of 50-75 percent
running maintenance plan post
A running maintenance plan has flexible training to meet your life demands.
  • More cross-training in place of running
  • Running of about 5 days with 2 rest days
  • One longer run of about 90 minutes (30 percent of weekly volume)
  • Mostly easy miles with one to two weeks
  • Strides
  • Strength 2-3 times a week
  • Active recovery on rest days

Running is an individual sport, so there is no set structure for this unstructured running. You do you! You do want one run to be longer than an hour and to run three times a week.

Related: How Long Does It Take to Lose Running Fitness

Below is a sample 6-week maintenance running plan. This is for a runner who runs about 40 miles per week in peak training. 

Sample Running Maintenance Plan

Remember, these workouts are guidelines. Miles can be moved. But most miles should remain easy and the volume should be evenly spread-out throughout the week.

Goal:

  • Run 3-4 days with around 20-30 mpw.
  • Aim to do strides twice per week.
  • Can do some fartleks, progressions, and fast finishes for the longer runs on Wednesday or Saturday
  • Have 2 rest days.
  • 1-2 days of cross-training
  • And strength train 2 days for about 30 minutes each
  • Spread out volume evenly with about 70 percent during the week and 30 percent in your long run

Related: The Best Cross-training Exercises for Runners

  • Monday-Easy 5 with 20-30 min strength training
  • Tuesday– Cross-train for 30-60 minutes, mobility routine (Check out my 5-minute mobility routine for runners here).
  • Wednesday-Easy 6-8 miles with 4 strides.
  • Thursday-Yoga
  • Friday-3 miles easy with some light strides, mobility
  • Saturday-8-10 miles easy
  • Sunday-Rest (okay to do a gentle walk, recovery cross-train and/or yoga).

Also, check out some other tips to stay in shape between races from my friends over at All About Marathon Training and Mile by Mile.

If you want a custom plan to fit your running goals with your busy schedule, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:

 

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