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Why it’s important to take a break from running?

I recently finished my track season for the year and it's time to take a small rest before training again for races later in the autumn. But why? The word ‘break’ is often a scary one for many endurance athletes as we tend to think of fitness being lost and our goals moving further out of reach. However, that break can actually do the opposite, allowing you the chance to rest, reflect and re-ignite that competitive flame.

It’s very difficult to be 100% all the time, actually its very difficult to sustain 95-98% of peak performance all the time which is why we should manage our training to include rest in amongst, long runs, tempo runs, speed workout and easy days.

Periodization is the division of a training year into smaller and more manageable time periods with the goal of managing training load and ensuring the athlete is in their peak shape at the same time the most important competition of the year is held. A well-planned and executed season of training is likely to see fitness levels slowly rise towards a goal race. But when you reach this event your fatigue level may also be fairly high due to the accumulation of months of hard training, so there comes a point when taking time off may be in your best interest.

Why Take a Break?

There are a few reasons why we should take a break from heavily structured, high intensity training every now and then and we break some of these reasons down.

There is only so long that you can sustain a high level of training (and therefore fatigue) before things may start to turn south. You can either elect to take some well earned down time or plateauing in fitness and risking over-training, burnout and injury.

Mental Benefits

As athletes we can get immersed within a training block that it is difficult to see the bigger picture and lose sight of why we train so hard. Taking a well earned rest can help prevent burnout or overtraining syndrome which is a condition whereby an athlete experiences fatigue and a decline in performance despite continuing to train or even increasing training load. Burnout can result in an increased risk of injury, illness and can create a reduction in motivation. Therefore a break from training will help you maintain motivation and increase your focus levels for when you do return to training.

A break gives us time to reflect if what is important, set goals for the future and evaluate your current plan. Stepping back gives us clarity to review our training data from the past couple of months (or maybe even years) which is something we do not have when our entire focus is on the next run or training session. So take a step back, rest mentally to set yourself new challenges and goals.

Physical Benefits

There is no such thing as over-training, just under recovering. Well that’s not quite true but serves a nice purpose in the context of taking a break. We don’t get fitter and faster from hard training sessions, rather recovering afterwards.

Training hard for a long time does not allow the body to repair itself at the same rate that it is being broken down which leads to injury. An end of season break helps to repair all the small aches and niggles that have accumulated over the season.

It’s better to take a week of than be injured for 3 months with a tendon injury or stress fracture.

When should you take a Break?

This is a bit of a hard question and depends upon individual circumstances. Most coaches will prescribe periods of rest at the end of a competitive season, following a large training block or after a priority race are all good times to take a break. For example, for an elite athlete, taking a break after the conclusion of the track season is a logical place to take a break. After a marathon is also a good time to schedule some much needed rest. But it could be at any point during the year – Just finished a cross country season? Smashed your local 10k? Or even had a really busy period with work? Any of these examples many all benefit from taking a break afterwards.

It is often important to rest before you feel burnt out. Burnout is often referred to as over-training syndrome and athletes typically experience physical or mental fatigue or even both which leads to a decline in sporting performance. Overtraining can lead to changes in mood (often we feel more irritable, decreased motivation and more frequent illnesses). If burnout does occur then it can be much harder to recover from and that recover period takes much longer.

But there are always circumstances where a break may not be necessary. If you have spent a lot of time not running over the past year due to injury or illness, you probably haven’t occurred the same level of mental and physical fatigue as someone that has trained for an entire year.

Not all breaks need to be long and at the end of the season or after a goal race. Taking small moments in the middle of training blocks can be really important to maintain motivation to the overall training programme and keep you committed to reach your goals.

How should you take a Break?

There is no conventional wisdom for how long you should take a break for. One or two weeks is usually appropriate for most runners, in order to rest and relax.

One of the best ways that many athletes use to take a break is to set a time period in which you will have that break. It may be three days, one week or one month, depending on individual circumstances and what you think you need (or when you think you’ll be bored of not running). However long you take off, be sure to return feeling fully rested and motivated to get back into training.

In the time you have off, focus on other aspects of your life (this may be even more true now that we are out of lock-down here in the UK). This may include spending more time with the family, trying out a new hobby or starting that home DIY project you’ve thought about for months.

As we eluded to earlier in the article, one of the main reason that athletes don’t like to take a break is the fear of losing that heard earned fitness. But we get stringer through recovery and there are various other forms of activity you can do to limit your fitness losses and come back better than before. You may want to use this time to focus on your weaknesses such as creating a little core routine or stretching regularly. Activities such as hiking, cycling, swimming, cross-training or strength training can all be used to focus your energy on something new.

You should make the decision to take a small amount of time off of time off rather than facing an extended time on the side-line through injury which can take a long time to recover from and get back to full fitness.

You should never feel guilty about taking a break from the sport you love. The life of a runner is full on with many different physical and mental challenges and giving yourself the time to reflect and set new goals can actually be one of the most rewarding parts of a training cycle (apart from maybe smashing that personal best!).

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