When You Need to Take a Break From Running

Woman blowing nose
Tom Grill

Sometimes an illness, an injury, or a hectic schedule prevents you from sticking to your running schedule. Sometimes you just need a break for no reason at all. Taking one is good for your mental and physical health, and you won't throw away all your hard work. In fact, you'll protect it by reducing your risk of injury or burnout.

The Right Time for a Running Break

Remember that planned breaks can help you avoid unplanned ones caused by illness or injury. Aside from regular rest days built into your running schedule, it's smart to take extra time off if:

  • You're ill
  • You've just finished a big race or event
  • You feel sluggish, less enthusiastic about running, or your performance is slipping (these are signs of overtraining, and more running is not usually the answer)
  • Your doctor has advised you to rest due to illness or injury
  • You have a minor injury (it could get worse if you keep running)

Rest is often the easiest and most effective treatment for common running aches and pains. Many running injuries respond well to the "RICE" treatment: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. RICE treatment can relieve pain, reduce swelling, and protect the injury from further aggravation. It should be followed for 24 to 48 hours following the initial injury. If it doesn't help, get checked out by a doctor.

When You're Sick

If you've been suffering from a cold or other short-term illness, take a break if you feel you need the rest. The general rule of thumb for running with a cold is that if your symptoms are from the neck up (a sore throat, runny nose, etc.), then it's okay to run, but you should take it easy. Train at about 50 percent of your normal intensity.

If your symptoms are below the neck (chest congestion, diarrhea, etc.), wait until you're feeling completely healthy to return to running. Similarly, skip your run if you have a fever, if your congestion is so bad you can't breathe through your nose, or if you feel at all dizzy.

Effects of a Running Break

It's possible to take up to a week off without losing any ground. In fact, a few days of rest may even improve your performance, especially if you've been feeling exhausted and sore. After a week, you will begin to see some losses in fitness. But they can be recovered.

VO2 Max

VO2 max stands for maximal oxygen consumption rate. It is a measure of how much oxygen the body uses during exercise (the more, the better). Research shows that an athlete can expect to see decreases in VO2 max score after about two weeks off.

Time Off

  • 10 days

  • 2 weeks

  • 9 weeks

  • 11 weeks

VO2 Max

  • Negligible

  • -6%

  • -19%

  • -25.7%

Pace

That decrease in VO2 max will affect your pace when you return to running. It might look like this:

Time Off

  • Up to 10 days

  • 2 weeks

  • 9 weeks

  • 11 weeks

5K Pace

  • 20:00 min

  • 21:05 min

  • 24:00 min

  • 25:30 min

Strength

There is not much research about how muscle strength diminishes during a break, but one older study says breaks of up to 10 days don't have much effect. After that, the problem peaks at about 4 weeks and then stays fairly stable.

Staying in Shape

Depending on the reason for your running break, you can still enjoy physical activity. This is a perfect time to work on strengthening your core, for example (which will only benefit your running when you return). You can also cross-train, again dependent on any injury you might be recovering from. Talk to your doctor about recommendations for safe activities. Often, low-impact activities such as yogapilates, swimming, or deep water running are a good choice. And try getting a massage or using a foam roller to stretch your muscles and improve circulation.

Coping With a Running Break

Whether you're forced to take one or you do it voluntarily, a running break can feel disorienting and uncomfortable. Whether you realize it or not, running is most likely a source of stress relief for you. Now's the time to find other relaxing activities that may help manage your stress. Catch a movie, binge-watch a show, or pick up some magazines, books, or a crossword puzzle—anything that will keep your mind occupied. Make sure that you get plenty of rest, too, since you're more likely to feel stressed and down if you're tired. Spend some of the time you're saving by not running on sleep.

Physical activity also helps prevent feelings of sadness and anger. If it's possible, keeping up the habit of regular exercise will also make your return to running easier and smoother. And you'll feel better knowing that you're still burning calories and maintaining some of your fitness.

Keep in touch with your running buddies and stay up-to-date on their training. Use your break as a time to get involved with running in other ways, such as volunteering at a race or cheering on your friends.

Now's also a great time to focus on non-running aspects of your life. You have more time to do the things you say you'll do when you're not busy training for a race. Get together with some non-running friends for coffee or dinner, or catch a movie or a play. Doing something that isn't part of your regular routine will help you appreciate the time off from running.

Coming Back From a Break

When you do return to running, it's important to do so carefully. How you approach it will depend on how long you've been away.

Returning From a Break of Less Than a Week

If you haven't run for less than seven days, do not try to make up the miles that you missed. If you try to squeeze all your missed miles into a short period of time, you could be at risk for a running injury due to overtraining. Just pick up your training schedule where you left off. You may feel a bit sluggish during your first run back, but it should only take one or two runs before you're feeling like your old self.

Returning to Running After One to Two Weeks Off

Start at about half the distance you were running before the injury. If you were recovering from an injury, go easy when you first return to running. If you run too hard, you risk re-injuring yourself. You should be able to build back to your former level in two to four weeks.

Returning After More Than Two Weeks

With a longer layoff, you need to be conservative when you return to running. After an injury, make sure you're definitely ready to come back. If you've been under the care of a medical professional, make sure you get cleared to return to running.

Once you're ready to run again, don't assume you have to run your entire distance. Start with a run/walk approach. As you build your endurance, you'll be able to extend your running segments and reduce walking time. A general rule of thumb is that it takes about two weeks of training to come back from every week of no exercise.

At first, take a day off after every running day. You'll need to gradually work up to your previous weekly mileage. And don't make jumps in your mileage. It's good to get comfortable with a specific weekly mileage by staying there for a couple of weeks, and then bump up your distance.

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