When I was training for my first half marathon, I took an entire week off of running for my honeymoon at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana. I was not worried at all about losing any running fitness, in part because we hiked usually at least three hours a day on some fairly rugged trails. My first couple runs during my first week back were a bit rough: my long run felt hard because of soreness in my legs from hiking and my speed work was challenging. However, there really was not any noticeable difference in my speed or endurance, especially by my 12 mile long run the next weekend.
No matter how much of a planner you are when it comes to fitting in workouts, almost all runners will at some point miss several days of running during training for a race. It’s inevitable when a training plan spans 12-18 weeks, but you need not fret about lost fitness.
How quickly is running fitness lost? The answer to this question depends on several variables, including how fit you were before, how long you took off, and whether you did any cross-training during your time off.
There are several reasons you might choose to miss several days of running. It is highly advisable that you take a break during illness such as the flu or a stomach bug. Injuries will require complete rest from running in order for the body to heal, especially if they are running related injuries like plantar fasciitis or stress fractures. Other times, you may take a break from running but find other ways to stay active, such as lots of walking when traveling or doing yoga or strength training.
In most cases, you will benefit from taking a couple rest days in the case of injury or illness. In these cases, running can do more harm than good and actually increase the time you need to rest from activity. It is much better to take two days off when you feel the onset of an injury or start feeling sick rather than have to take off a couple weeks because you didn’t listen to your body.
In reality, a few days off from running will not damage your training, especially if you have a strong running base. If you’re in the middle of a half marathon or marathon, you should have enough miles under your feet to provide you with a strong enough base of fitness in case you miss a couple days.
One of my favorite running books, Hansons Half-Marathon Method, outlines what sort of losses can be expected at different intervals of time off from running (this information can also be found in the Hansons Marathon Method). When they refer to days missed here, they mean days off due to sickness or injury – so days where you are not only not running but also not cross-training. Here’s a summary of what they have to say about days off of running and losing your fitness.
– One to two days off: If you miss just a couple days, you can resume training as scheduled with no adjustments to intensity or mileage. Just jump back into your plan and don’t try to make up for the missed workouts. For example, if you have catch a bit of a cold after your long run on Sunday and rest Monday and Tuesday, just start back up as scheduled on Wednesday and continue according to a plan. Those couple missed runs won’t make or break your training.
– Three to six days off: This still is not enough time off, even if you are confined to bed, to undo your train or make you have to reassess your goals. Ease back in with easy running for a couple days, then resume the previous week’s training for the rest of the week. This is why I often add a week into training – so I can go back a week if I miss workouts. If you didn’t add an extra week, resume at the current week in your plan.
-Seven to ten days off: If you have not engaged in any cross-training, you will likely see some losses in your fitness at this point and should not directly resume your plan. Even if you have been cross-training, you want to carefully ease yourself back into running to prevent injury. You may also at this point need to reconsider your goals, especially if you were aiming for a big PR. When you start running again, you should run easy for same number of days as you missed, then repeat the last training week you completed, and then resume the schedule from there. If you are set on achieving a very particular time goal (like qualifying for Boston), then you should consider a race a couple weeks later than your intended race so you can regain any lost fitness.
-More than ten days off: After more than a week and a half off, you will see about a 3-5% loss in your fitness gains from training. What this means, for example, is that if you are aiming for a 1:45 half-marathon, you are now more in the shape to run a 1:49 half; if you are aiming for a 2:00 half, you are now in 2:05 territory. The longer you take off, the more fitness you lose – so in three weeks off from running you can lose about 10% of your fitness, which would take the 1:45 goal down to 1:55 and a 2:00 goal down to 2:12! Once you have taken two or more weeks off from running, it may take more than two weeks to return to your previous fitness level.
If you have add about a week off but maintained cross-training at a similar intensity, you will have an easier and quicker transition back into running than if you had completely taken time off. If you have to take time off for running due to travel, then at least try to be as active as possible on your trip in order to resume your training. Here are some of my tips from coming back to training after not running but maintaining other activity for up to seven days:
– Repeat the last week of training you completed, and then resume your training plan.
– Run by effort, not by pace, especially if your first run back includes speed work and tempo efforts.
– Listen to your body: if your long runs feels too demanding, ease up on pace, add walk intervals, or end it early. Remember than few miles are better than no miles.
-Emphasize recovery to help your muscles re-adapt to the unique demands of running. Running is one of the highest impact forms of exercise, so be sure to stretch, foam roll, and get enough sleep to prevent soreness.
Receive Weekly Running Tips & Motivation
Subscribe for my weekly newsletter and receive a free download of injury prevention exercises for runners.