A glaring “0 miles”marks a week in my December training log. From December 5 to 13 of last year (2016) I did not lace up my running shoes – not a single mile was run. After that zero mile week, I ran a fraction of my normal mileage for the next month. My recovery run distance became my long run for a solid month.
Why? I wasn’t injured, sick, or burnt out. I had just completed my goal race of the year, 26.2 miles at a pace fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I was in peak shape – so why take a break and not keep training, especially since I so quickly resumed training for a race after the break?
The emphasis on getting faster often focuses on the active part of training – the workouts, the mileage, the ancillary work. And while you certainly can’t run a fast half marathon without threshold training or a marathon without demanding long runs, these hard workouts would be less effective without taking breaks and focusing on recovery.
Breaks from running can occur on a weekly through annual/semi-annual basis. These are different types of breaks that achieve different purposes: better recovery between hard workouts, injury prevention, and a much-needed physical and mental break after a race.
Why Take Breaks from Running?
Most runners are hesitant to take scheduled breaks from running. Rest days make many of us antsy and full weeks off render even the sanest of runners completely stir-crazy. But there are benefits to not running, whether it’s for a day or a week.
Protect Your Immune System
Have you ever experienced the post marathon sniffles? I certainly have!
Intense exercise such as races, very hard speed workouts, or very long runs can temporarily suppress your immune system. Intense exercise floods your body with stress hormones, in order to get your body to heal those damaged muscles quickly. Your immune system responds by dealing with that stress first over other potential viruses and bacteria – thus increasing your chances of getting sick.
While a suppressed immune system is mostly a problem after a race, if you train without sufficient breaks from running, your immune system is constantly suppressed until you just break down and get sick or experience chronic fatigue.
Avoid Mental Burnout and Overtraining
Training at the same mileage and intensity week after week, month after month can actually set you up for a plateau, mental burnout, or physical overtraining. A plateau occurs when you stop seeing improvement in your training. Mental burnout is that moment when you suddenly despise running and find excuses not to run whenever you can. Overtraining includes plateau and mental burnout, but also indicates a point of pushing your body too hard. The signs of overtraining include loss of appetite, changes in sleep habits, physical plateau, mental burnout, and unintentional changes in weight.
Weekly rest days will reduce the risk of a plateau, mental burnout and overtraining, but the best insurance against these is schedule longer breaks from your running. A few days completely off after a race and cutback weeks during training will give both your mind and body the recovery they need and keep you running for years to come.
Honestly, I sort of enjoy my breaks from running. I see them as a reward for working hard, and I’m more likely to stay disciplined through a training cycle and dig deep during a race if I know I will have a few days to rest.
Decreased Risk of Injury
Repetitive motion and the high impact of running are what most often cause injury (with factors such as biomechanical irregularities increasing the risk of injury). The same muscles and joints get pounded over and over again – and without a break, this can lead to sprains, strains, overuse injuries, tendonitis, and stress fractures. By letting your body properly recover from the wear and tear of training, you decrease your risk of injury.
Types of Breaks from Running
Weekly: Rest Day
While rest days realistically occur on the day of the week that best fits your schedule, ideally rest days would occur on the day after a long run or a hard workout. Taking a rest day after a hard run gives your body extra recovery when it needs it the most.
You can take a complete rest day or do some active recovery – yoga, Pilates, walking, or very gentle and short cross-training.
Monthly: Cutback Weeks
Cutback weeks is the colloquial term for a reduction in mileage and often intensity. Cutback weeks serve as mini-recovery weeks while still letting you train for a race. Most importantly, cutback weeks will get you to the start line of a race injury-free, mentally ready to race, and peaked (versus overtrained). A reputable training plan or knowledgeable running coach will schedule cutback weeks every 3-5 weeks, depending on your age, goals, and injury profile.
Annually/Semi-Annually: Off Weeks
Off weeks are deliberately scheduled weeks off from running, usually after a goal race or the end of the season. These are not weeks that accidentally happen due to injury! Rather, a deliberate week off from running can save you from having to take several weeks off from running due to an injury.
Out of these three types of breaks from running, off weeks seem to be the most neglected by recreational runners yet the most important. Post-race rest weeks are a staple in the post-race training plans of elite runners, but many recreational athletes will often jump right back into running as normal within a couple days after a race.
Now, you may say that you don’t train as hard or race as fast as an elite, so you don’t need as much recovery as they do. But you are training hard for you and racing fast for you, and you still need to let your mind and body recover after a race and end of training season. You may not take two weeks off after your marathon – but I encourage you to a week off after a marathon and a few days after a half marathon.
After your break off, don’t immediately resume high mileage and twice per week hard workouts. Spend a couple weeks running easy, maybe even a full month of easy runs only after your marathon.
I promise you, taking deliberately planned breaks from your running will not compromise your hard-earned fitness or your goals. In fact, I think it’s essential for achieving your goals and improving your fitness. Those first couple runs back will feel sluggish, but you will quickly return to normal within a week or so of returning to running.
After my post-marathon break – one week off and three weeks of only easy running – the first week back to training did indeed feel harder. My body wasn’t quite used to speedwork or long runs, but it quickly remembered. Within another week, I was running faster paces in my tempo runs and cruising through long runs. Mentally, I was enjoying every moment of training and felt energized during my runs. I don’t think I would have felt so good and had so many strong workouts had I not taken a break from running.
Take that break – and your body will thank you.
Linking up with Coaches’ Corner!
How often do you take rest days?
Do you take time off after a race?
Have you ever overtrained or had mental burnout?