Here are two common scenarios for runners: you run a race and YOU DO AWESOME! You’re hungry to get another personal best! OR, you run a race and YOU DO AWFUL. It’s time for retribution! Either scenario does not include a planned break from running. The runners go right back into training.
But that is a HUGE mistake. A mistake I have been guilty of time and again. Here’s an example: the last race I ran was the 2019 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. I trained for it and ran it with a TORN HAMSTRING. But I wanted my one and only shot to try to qualify for the Olympic Trials. I ran a 2:56 dragging my right leg behind me.
A smart runner would have taken weeks (or even months off) to rehab the injury, let the body heal, and return to homeostasis. What did I do? I took 6 days off and started training for what I deemed was unfinished business. The result? I had to take a running break for most of 2020 to rehab my running injury.
Planned running breaks are known career prolongers
With or without a running injury, and no matter the athletic level, running breaks are wise for runners and running career prolongers.
“Regardless of your running level, always consider a planned break to reset your mind and body for new challenges ahead. Your body will be really pleased,” advises running coach Miriam Jimenez, a running coach with coaching platform Wonder Source.
Even coaching great Jack Daniels in his famed book, Daniel’s Running Formula, advocates for several planned running breaks throughout the year—including multiple 2 weeks breaks and one longer break of 6 weeks or so.
“Look at breaks as important, useful steps toward reaching your long-term goals. Convince yourself that the break is an actual phase of training, a stepping-stone toward better training and superior performances,” he writes.
My coach, Bobby Holcombe of Knoxville Endurance, won’t talk to his athletes about their next training block until at least a week after their race, no matter how eager we may be. He is also adamant about a week of recovery.
Runners are notoriously OCD about running and taking time off. Many runners, despite the known benefits of a weekly rest day, struggle to take that rest day—let alone weeks off from running. They fear losing fitness and momentum and gaining weight. Yet, the opposite can be true if runners don’t take a break.
Elite runners, running coaches, and sports medicine professionals know the benefits of planned running breaks and rest days. And I’m here to share them with you so that you may have a long and healthy running career.
Why is it important for runners to take planned breaks from running?
Taking planned running breaks is crucial for injury prevention, optimal performance, and motivation.
Running coach Alexandra Weissner of bRUNch Running uses this analogy: “Think of your body like your cell phone. When your cell phone is fully charged it works great! When your battery is not fully charged, everything starts to move a little slower. The same goes for your body. Having planned breaks and rest days into your schedule are key.”
Planned breaks should be part of any runner’s training program. Typically, a runner will train for a race and then end his or her training block with a period of rest before beginning the next training block. This is called training periodization.
Thus, runners who do not take planned breaks from running risk getting injured, having suboptimal performance, and mental burnout.
When should a runner take a planned running break?
Most often, breaks from running occur at the end of a training cycle which usually culminates with a race. However, breaks can also occur at the end of a rigorous training block, with or without a race.
For example, Weissner’s athlete’s training in 12-week cycles with the 13th week being an easy recovery week.
“This means no hard workouts and for some athletes, no running at all. Instead, we encourage cross-training like cycling, swimming or walking. We still want you to move your body, but we want you to bring down the intensity.”
Running coach and 2:47 marathoner Carina Heilner’s athletes take planned breaks when an injury is coming on or they show signs of overtraining including dreading running, being tired all the time, having a decrease in performance, or a higher resting heart rate.
“In these situations, it is better to take a couple of days off than risk an injury or illness that will take weeks or months to recover from,” Heilner shares.
How long should a break from running be?
Your break from running can be as long or as short as needed.
Brett Durney, co-founder and personal trainer at Fitness Lab, notes some stipulations for how long of a break a runner should take from running. If the runner is training for an ultra-endurance event, a longer break will be needed. Age and the potential for injuries are also factors.
Typically, for every 12 weeks of training, a week off is prescribed. Many elite athletes take upwards of 2 weeks of doing nothing or a bit of cross-training between training blocks. As noted, Daniels recommends at least one longer break of 6 weeks or more per year for a runner.
Complete Tri coach Von William’s athletes take 4 to 10 weeks to rest and prepare for the upcoming season.
What should runners do on their running breaks?
First and foremost, when on a break from running, a runner should not run—or run very easy and very short. While on a running break, runners don’t need to be inactive. In fact, this is a chance to try new things and work the body in new ways (that can be beneficial for running).
What to do on a running break
“Whenever you’re not running, you should still be conditioning your tissues and better preparing them for handling the forces encountered with running,” explains Dr. Scott McAfee, a doctor or physical therapy at Movement-X.com.
“Cross-training with other sports or in the gym can be a great way to train outside of the sagittal plane and introduce new forces to your body.”
Try a new hobby.
Take up hiking or yoga or tennis, suggests Williams. Go for a walk with friends or to a coffee shop to read.
Take a vacation.
Durney urges runners to go on vacation during their running break! That’s what the pros do! “We aren’t saying that you need to sit on the beach and do nothing. Enjoy your vacation. Enjoy the activities that are available to you and relax. This is a time to move your body differently than you do on your normal days so take it in.”
Read about running.
Durney tells his runners to “allocate the time you would usually use for training to read (I usually set them training-related reading which will improve their knowledge).”
Meditate & mobilize.
Durney also recommends runners “allocate the time you would usually use for training to meditate, stretch, and complete yoga.” You can also work on your mobility exercises such as with the MYRTL routine.
Spend time with loved ones.
Runners can also replace their running time with quality time with family and friends to enjoy the other aspects of life–remembering that you are improving your body daily through rest.
Amplify your recovery.
Dr. McAfee suggests runners amplify their recovery when in an off-season by using new technology such as compression sleeves or cryotherapy.
How do planned breaks help make you a better runner?
Planned breaks allow runners to build their minds and bodies back up. They return with stronger muscles, tendons, and minds.
Durney goes so far as to say: You are only as good as your recovery. You can only train as well as you’ve recovered.
“I’ve seen it hundreds of times over the years where clients/athletes train OR indeed diet non-stop in the quest for better performance. Unfortunately, it does not work this way and the parable of the tortoise and the hare really comes true here.”
Simply put, he says, if you don’t rest and recover you will put yourself at risk of repetitive strain injury, become demotivated, and as a result, your performance will actually decrease as opposed to increasing.
Dan DeRoeck, a former competitive runner (2:34 marathoner), experienced firsthand an improved performance when he started instituting regularly planned breaks in his training.
“Taking planned time off from running becomes a personal choice for the runner. But I can attest that taking scheduled time off has been beneficial for me in avoiding injuries and improving overall performance, a decision I actually wish I had done more of in the past,” he shared.
Rest rejuvenates and rebuilds muscle groups, and most times the runner will come back even stronger, DeRoeck adds. Including periods of rest also helps the runner from becoming ‘stale,’ he adds.
How can I convince myself to take a planned running break?
Are you still hesitant to take time off? Consider these 3 reasons to take a break from running.
Pros do it.
Many runners have a hard time taking time off from running because they fear they will lose the edge (and lose their fitness). When these thoughts come to mind, remind yourself that even the best athletes in the world, Olympians and professionals, take breaks, take breaks.
“What do professional athletes do when the season is over? Absolutely nothing for two to four weeks, or longer in some cases. That tells you that breaks are good,” says Williams.
For those worried about weight gain, pro runner (and mother runner) Tina Muir outlines reasons to take a planned running break, noting that gaining weight in the off-season is beneficial for the body.
“It is not healthy for your body to stay at racing weight all year round, so a few extra pounds is not going to do any harm, it will come off again within a few weeks.”
If you can’t buy into planned running breaks, educate yourself on what happens to your body when you take time off from running. Your tissues build up. Your bones get stronger. Your hormone levels regulate.
Dr. McAfee says, “When you understand how important rest and recovery is on a fundamental level, you begin to prioritize it.”
Focus on rest.
Think of rest as part of your training. You aren’t doing nothing. You’re allowing your body to get stronger.
“When runners understand the body and are motivated by performance getting them to take the appropriate time off is usually not hard,” says Heilner. “In fact, I think it is in the time off that runners truly understand why they run and come back loving it even more!”
Dr. Jordan Duncan, owner of Silverdale Sport & Spine, likes to remind his runners that injuries occur from cumulative stress on the body thus it’s important to cease the repetitive movements running entails.
If they are stressing about losing fitness or gaining weight, “cross-training can allow runners to remain in shape during a scheduled time off from running,” he advises.
6 Reasons to take a planned running break
Builds immune system back up.
When your body is running or training hard, it releases stress hormones to your muscles to try to heal them quickly. This means your body is prioritizing this healing over protecting your body from harmful germs. This increases your risk for getting sick.
A running break allows your body to return to hormone homeostasis.
“If you train without sufficient breaks from running,” Laura warns, “your immune system is constantly suppressed until you just break down and get sick or experience chronic fatigue.”
Lets the body build itself up.
When your body is running hard, your muscle and tendons actually have micro tears in them that need time to heal. In fact, this study found that a week after a marathon, your skeletal muscle cells are in necrosis.
Thus, if you resume training too soon, you risk a running injury that can lay you off for longer than a few weeks. Plus, you risk decreased performance because your body is still broken down.
Decreases risk of injury.
Most running injuries are overuse injuries as running is a repetitive sport. “Overuse injuries such as tendonitis and stress fractures can arise when recovery is not prioritized,” says Dr. McAfee
When a runner prioritizes rest throughout a training program and at the end, their bones, tendons, and muscles get a chance to get stronger and perform better the next time.
Training hard provides a lot of wear and tear on the body—and mind! Runners who don’t take running breaks risk mental burnout. Runners who prioritize regular rest days and planned running breaks return to the sport refreshed and ready to tackle the next big goal!
Running is a high impact, says Durney, and a very mechanically damaging activity to your joints, ligaments, muscles, tendons, respiratory system, and cardiovascular systems. “Over time this takes its toll on the body (no matter how fit you are).”
This can lead to over-training which shows up in the form of decreased performance despite an increased effort, feeling tired all the time, dreading running, difficulty sleeping, and a higher resting heart rate.
Regular breaks and planned running breaks prevent runners from experiencing the overtraining syndrome.
If there is any compelling reason to take time off—it is knowing that it will enhance your running performance. After all, the reason most runners don’t want to take time off is that they fear it will hurt their performance.
But knowing these facts and experiences should convince even the most stringent runner that taking a break from running will make you a better, faster runner…for life!
(& if you would like help on your goals & someone to hold you accountable, check out The Mother Runners coaching services!)