When to Skip a Workout (& How to Adjust Your Running Schedule)

Life happens. And there will inevitably come a time when you will be forced to decide when to skip a workout—and then how to adjust your running schedule if you do.

Deciding when to skip a workout or miss your run can be pretty agonizing for a runner. We are conditioned to push through pain, and many of us struggle with rest days—especially if they are unplanned. However, skipping a run can sometimes be unavoidable and oftentimes is wise.

Runners’ fear of missing workouts can lead to injury.

Sometimes packed schedules make running impossible to fit in. Other times we may feel sick, have a running injury coming on, or just too exhausted to run.

In my past, I would run through illness or injury only to feel worse and have to take an extended amount of time off. Other times, I took time off from running and tried to make up for lost time only to get injured. I want to save you from making these mistakes.

In this article, I will guide you in:

  • How to decide when to skip a workout due to illness
  • How to decide when to skip a workout due to injury
  • How to decide when to skip a workout due to fatigue
  • What happens when you take time off from running
  • Tips for changing your running schedule
  • How to adjust your training schedule when you miss a workout

When to Skip a Workout Due to Illness

Most dedicated runners will not miss their run at any cost. But sometimes, running can do more harm than good. So, how can you tell if you are too sick to run?

Most runners go by the standard that if your symptoms are above the neck, you can run. If you have below the neck symptoms, then you should skip your run. This is fine as a guideline, but sometimes can you lead you astray, for example, if you have a migraine or you’re in the beginning stages of an illness.

when-to-skip-running-workout
Learn how to decide when to skip your workout and how to adjust your running schedule. Pin the tips for later!

Therefore, I suggest you ask yourself the following questions to determine if you are too sick to run. If you answer yes to any of them, skip your run!:

  • Does just the thought of running feel too hard?
  • Do you have a fever or feel achy?
  • Is breathing difficult?
  • Do you have chest or stomach pains?
  • Have you felt progressively worse over the past day or two?

In general, running with a mild cold should have little to no effect on your body if you use common sense. However, running could make your cold worse and lead to more serious illnesses like pneumonia or a sinus infection. If you feel worse as you are running, stop-go home and rest.

If you don’t answer yes to these questions, go for a run BUT avoid runs longer than an hour and paces faster than an easy pace. Your run should be a maintenance run that maintains your fitness rather than improves it.

When to Skip a Workout Due to Injury

Too many times I have pushed past pain, ignoring a running injury, only to worsen it and end up sidelined. I don’t want this to happen to you. So, how can you tell if you shouldn’t run with your injury?

In the amazing book by Megan and David Roche, The Happy Runner, they say: “A side effect of being a runner is that you will get injured…” Thus, be prepared to take time off and lessen the damage by asking yourself the following questions. If you answer yes to any of these questions, then you should skip your run!

  • Does it hurt when you walk
  • Has the pain lasted longer than a day?
  • Is the pain getting worse as the day progresses?
  • Does the pain get worse as you run?

You can also use the stoplight analogy:

how to prevent common running injuries
How to prevent common running injuries

Red light pain:

Pain that is >6/10 is a red light. Stop this activity! If the pain is severe and you are unable to walk, then go see a professional, a PT, or MD.

Yellow light pain:

Pain that is less than or equal to 5/10 means to proceed with caution. This pain should subside in 24 hours and improve in 2 weeks with similar activities.

Greenlight pain: 

Pain that is < 2/10 and goes away in 24 hours or less is safe. Do not increase any training variables when you have symptoms unless advised by a coach or healthcare provider. 

Pain that is < 2/10 and goes away in 24 hours or less is safe. Do not increase any training variables when you have symptoms unless advised by a coach or healthcare provider.

Related: 6 Steps to Return to Running After Injury

When to Skip a Workout Due to Fatigue

Sometimes #momlife or life, in general, can leave you fatigued. Sometimes, we train too hard and don’t recover enough.

whoop
I recently got a WHOOP to avoid overtraining and running injuries. Click the link to save $30 on yours!.

I recently got a WHOOP fitness tracker to ensure my recovery and training are balanced out. (You can save $30 on a WHOOP here! It’s an amazing resource that many elite athletes use.)

Personally, my biggest hurdle is getting enough sleep. My kids go to bed late and my husband goes to work early, so my window to sleep and train is small. Skimping on sleep, which is when your body builds itself back up stronger, can lead to overtraining.

Overtraining 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.

Related: Why You Should Take a Planned Running Break

So, how can you tell if you’re too tired to run—or simply unmotivated? Ask yourself these questions. Again, if you answer yes to any of these, take a day (or days off) and adjust your training:

  • Does the thought of running make you unhappy?
  • Is your resting heart rate elevated?
  • Are you having trouble sleeping?
  • Is your performance declining?
  • Have you been exhausted for more than a day?
  • Do you feel worse as you run?
  • Have you not been eating or sleeping enough?
when-to-skip-your-workout
Learn how to decide when to skip your workout and how to adjust your running schedule. Pin the tips for later!

What happens to your body when you skip a workout?

When you skip a day of running, there is no physiological change. In fact, if anything, you may return stronger. If you take a week off of running, these changes may occur:

  • a reduction in capillary density and oxidative enzymes which impacts how much oxygen your body can process;
  • along with a rise in how much oxygen a person then consumes over carbon dioxide produced;
  • a decrease in glycogen uptake and an increase in fat-burning (which leads to slower running); and
  • an increase in fast-twitch muscle fibers over the use of slow-twitch muscle fibers, leading to a faster accumulation of lactate leaving your legs burning and heavy.
  • Additionally, other factors outside this study such; as a decrease in muscle tension and neuromuscular changes can lead to a decline in running performance.
  • 1985 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found a 9 percent reduction in blood volume and a 12 percent reduction in stroke volume after two to four weeks of inactivity in trained men. This impacts your VO2 max, making running feel hard.

The good news is, it’s easy to reverse these changes, especially if you were pretty fit before the break from running. More good news is that it takes a long time to lose all your fitness. Learn how long it takes to lose running fitness here.

Tips for Moving Your Running Workouts

If you skip a workout or are forced to adjust your running schedule, keep these return-to-running guidelines in mind:

  • Don’t ever run back-to-back hard workout days
  • Start easy and progress back into your schedule
  • Don’t try to make up for lost time
  • Let your body guide you as to when to add more running time

How to Adjust Your Running Schedule

If you are in a situation where you may be sick, injured, or fatigued, you can adjust your workouts with the following plans (according to running coach Brad Hudson in Run Faster):

Plan B: If you feel lousy & can’t do plan A, do Plan B. Aim to do an abbreviated portion of the planned workout, e.g. 15 min tempo instead of 30 min tempo. Don’t push your workout.

Plan C: If you feel so lousy that you cannot run at all (answered yes to any of the above questions), move to Plan C: skip workout and resume as normal.

Extended time off: If you’re forced to take 5 days or more off, resume easy running for 3 days before gradually moving towards your planned training schedule over the next week or so. 

There are many return-to-running plans out there because there are obviously variations based on your circumstances (bone versus soft tissue injury, a bad cold versus COVID-19).

when-to-skip-workout
I have plantar fasciitis which means my return to running will be very conservative.

Running coach Jack Daniels provides a good general guide for how to return to running after a break that can be adjusted based on your circumstances:

Return to Running Plan

  • 0-5 days off running: Easy running at 100 percent volume equal to the number of days off with strides
  • 6 days off: 3 days easy running at 50 percent volume; then 3 days easy running at 75 percent volume with strides
  • 28 days off: 14 days easy running at 50 percent volume; then 14 days easy running at 75 percent volume
  • 29+ days off: 9 days easy running at 33 percent volume; 10 days easy running at 50 percent volume; then 10 days at 75 percent volume with strides
  • 8 weeks off running: 18 days easy running at 33 percent volume; 19 days easy running at 50 percent volume; then 19 days at 75 percent volume with strides
  • 8+ weeks off running: 3 weeks each at 33 percent, 50 percent, 70 percent, 85 percent, 100 percent with strides.
  • 72 days off running: A runner is almost completely detrained.

If you have had to take an extended break (or more than a month due to injury, pregnancy, illness, or life), generally you should follow these

4 Return to Running Tips

    • Walk before you run. Walking is the best cross-training activity to ready your body for running.
    • When you’re able to walk for about a half-hour without pain/discomfort, you’re ready to run.
    • Start with short run/walk intervals on a flat, level surface. Gradually elongate the time you run & shorten the time you walk so that you work up to consistently running for a half-hour. At this point, you can segue to running.
    • Alternate run & XT days.
    • Meanwhile, strengthen your body—especially any weaknesses like your pelvic floor and core post-baby or around her injured area.

Finally, consider a running coach to guide you safely back to the road and chasing your goals! Check out The Mother Runners coaching for more info about my coaching. 

 

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