June 20, 2013

When to take a running break

Remember how that last 50K broke me. Afterwards (aka during -- like with each step), I decided that it was time for me to take a break. Not only were all of my toenails throbbing and pleading for no more torture, but my mind just needed a rest from worrying about anything that had to do with running. I wanted to take the running slate and wipe it clean and blow away the dust.

There was nothing broken or seriously injured (minus those toenails), so how did I know I needed to take a break? Well the obvious part is that I've been running like a crazy person for months and months. Although compared to some people, like all of my buddies running Western States, what I run in a month is like a wimpy weekly mileage total for them. But with me and my newness to the 50K and running three of them since February, my body was telling me that it was time to take a deep breath and just recover. 

In case you're trying to decide for yourself if it's time to take your own little running vacation, here are some of the key factors for me in deciding when to take a running break:

  • Natural downtime in your racing schedule. Because I don't have another race until the end of July (and it's just for fun, or so I tell myself), this was a great time for me to take a break and let my muscles and bones focus more on recovery for a couple of weeks. 
  • Your legs are fatigued. This was actually the determining factor for taking a break after this last 50K. From the first step, my legs felt sooooo heavy. I knew then that they just needed a break from the intensity. After a couple weeks of breaking, they already feel much fresher than they did at the adrenaline-pumped start line of that race. 
  • Before starting a new training plan. Starting a new training plan with fresh legs can help you build confidence from the start. In July, I'll start marathon training for Savannah. Even though I'm not racing that one (I'm pacing my buddy in her first marathon!), I'd still like to go into the training plan with fresh legs. 
  • When you're just not excited about running. I definitely had the feeling during this last race that running just wasn't fun that day. Did I feel that way for an extended period? Not really, but I wanted to take a break before I got to that point. It's sometimes easier for us to listen to the signals our bodies give us -- like, oh, my Achilles hurts so darn bad that I can't walk straight, so I should probably take a rest. Whereas, it's harder to listen to the mental voice that says that running is losing the magic for you. If you spot it happening, take a mental, meaning an actual, break from training. Hide your training plans and find other positive activities, like hanging with the family and friends, to fill your time. 


  • If you're sick. Your body has a lot of clever ways to let you know that you are worn down. One of those ways is being more susceptible to illness. Here's a short and informative article on illness related to running activity. Either way, if you are sick, don't be afraid to take a break until you recover. 

  • Decline in performance. If you've been out there grindin' and haven't seen any improvement in your results lately, you could be suffering from a performance decline linked to overuse. Check out this article for symptoms of overtraining
  • You're on vacation. Vacations are the perfect time to take it easy on yourself and your training. Because vacation time is usually focused on family and friends, it's easy to put running into perspective. Running is definitely worthwhile and therapeutic, but it is not as important as your family, which is easy to understand when you're busy swapping stories with them about who wins the award for most tortuous older sibling. My older brothers used to pin me to the ground and spit in my mouth along with telling me that if I tattled on them I would get sent to be made into glue at the Elmer's factory, named after Elmer who told on his big brother -- of course. So they win. 
  • You have an injury. I actually forgot this one in my original post, and I had to come back and add it in. Unfortunately, this is the cause of so many of my running breaks. In my opinion, I could have avoided these forced running breaks due to running-related injury if I had taken more of the optional running breaks listed above. That's not a guarantee, but man, I just feel it in my stress-fractured bones. 

This article recommends taking at least one three- to four-week break per year. Sounds easy until you get into the thick of running things and realize that taking a break now would interfere with the almighty race schedule. So plan your breaks in advance and with as much care as you put into planning your races. Don't just rationalize that you will eventually get to that. 

And even if you haven't preplanned a rest, listen if your body is signaling for a one. That training plan will still be there in a few weeks, and you will probably be a lot happier to see it. 

By the way, I am the worst at this! There are so many for-fun races on my schedule that I forget that even when I'm just doing a race for fun, it still saps lots of energy from my legs. 

For this particular rest period, I took two weeks off. Did I run at all? A few times, but I made sure to keep it very fun and easy. Very, very easy. I ended up with about four easy runs total during the two weeks. This article gives some recommendations for how to stay in shape during a break period. Or if you're feeling like it, just pause everything and don't worry about losing or maintaining fitness. I didn't run distance for over 30 years, and my body caught on fairly quickly. Three weeks of resting will not kill you, but it just might make you stronger. 

When was the last time you took a running break? 

Do you schedule breaks on your race calendar? 

How often do you take breaks of two weeks or longer? 

What's your favorite activity during your running breaks? Reading and yoga. I made a little more progress on my nightstand's stack of book over the last two weeks.