There comes a point when we all need to just take a step back and take a break from training. There are a myriad of factors that lead to this becoming necessary whether that be physical or emotional but periodic breaks are an essential component for any appropriate training cycle.
What is important to understand is that a break can and should at times consist of a complete break from running while other times a break should simply be a pause from structured training. Often just taking time off from the rigors of hard workouts, group training sessions or a fixed routine and a shift to purely foundational mileage and no workouts can be just what is needed.
With any effective approach planned or unplanned breaks are necessary. Recognize from the onset that you will need to take a break at some point. The best ones are those that are planned. In most instances a planned break completely off from running for a 1- to 3-week period can help ensure an unplanned break won’t be necessary later when you are not expecting it. The key is recognizing which is appropriate or when a blended model is necessary.
Below is a breakdown of scenarios and which type of break you should consider:
Injury: Not all injuries require time off from running. Taking a week or two off completely is the typical default for most athletes but often you can train through smaller issues. (By all means, if you’re feeling some sort of pain when you run, be sure to see a doctor or physical therpist.) It is possible to train through many minor issues and keep it controlled all while still training. If you have pushed through the injury for months and months and it is just not improving then time off should be considered. The type of injury dictates if time off is appropriate so do more research to learn about this distinction.
Chronic fatigue: Have you ever gotten to the point in your training where you just feel sluggish or that running becomes too laborious? When running starts to feel like a physical burden despite having a pretty good level of fitness, you might be suffering from chronic fatigue. The first approach when dealing with a fatigue pattern that is outside the normal parameters you would expect with hard training, should be a break from hard workouts. A shift to taking a few days off completely then just running for several weeks without workout should be explored first before taking several weeks off completely.
Mental staleness: This scenario pertains to a time when you have a goal but are going through a period where you feel less motivated. It is important to note that the mind needs a break in the same fashion as the body does. Our minds and ability to stay laser-focused on a goal can become fatigued and a break to regroup can help refresh the senses. In this instance, where a goal has been established, shifting to just running mileage for a few weeks and your motivation will come back around.
Lack of clarity of the next goal: This is a common and is different from mental staleness in that you are not sure what to prepare for next and lack motivation due to lack of clarity. If you’re just going through the motions and not really running with purpose, you’re essentially just spinning your wheels. In this situation, taking a full break from running may actually help you regroup and give you that extra incentive to pick a new goal. It can be easy to fall into the pattern or running without purpose and a full break can kick start your thinking more intently on what next challenging you would like to work towards.
Post-racing season: In most instances a complete 1- to 2-week break is appropriate after a racing season. If you have completed a collection of races or trained and finished a marathon then a full break is necessary physically and emotionally. However if you have trained for one particular event but only applied yourself for a few months then reverted back to mileage for a few weeks without workouts is a better approach.
A plateau: Plateaus happen and it can be hard to crack the code as to what to do next to ensure your progress continues. In this scenario reverting to mileage for several months is necessary. In most cases a plateau has happened from the training being too predictable or due to a lack of a base phase. Putting in several months of good foundational mileage could be the physiological element missing and just what is needed to make another step.
The key factor to consider when taking a break is how long and for what purpose. Every aspect of your training should have a purpose including a break. Taking the correct amount can provide just what your body or mind need to regroup and refresh, but too long of a break can have negative implications both physically and mentally. Too long away from training will lead to risk of injury when building back up, taking longer than hoped to get back to prior fitness, frustration emotionally or lack of motivation due to allowing other less productive or positive influences to replace goals and benchmarks.
About the Author
Two-time U.S. Olympian Alan Culpepper won national titles from the 5K to the marathon. His first book, “Run Like a Champion,” is available at VeloPress.com.