Should You Take a Break from Running?

Should You Take a Break from Running?

Most of the time, running is enjoyable. That’s ultimately why we all lace up our shoes, log those daily miles, and train for distances that seem crazy to the average person. But what happens when running is no longer enjoyable? When should you take a break from running?

Obviously, there are situations in life that necessitate an extended break from running. The postpartum phase, stress fractures or serious injuries, surgeries, contracting a serious illness, and other medical reasons all warrant several weeks off of running – without dispute. This post, however, focuses on when you feel you need an extended break from running during to other reasons – reasons with a less concrete timeline of “take of x weeks until you are healed.” This post looks at taking an extended break from running due to the need for a mental break or due to overtraining. 

Many runners are afraid to take a break from running. They have invested months, if not years, into training and building their fitness. They fear an extended break because it could mean undoing years of hard work. However, sometimes avoiding a break at all costs actually puts you in a worse situation, especially if you deal with burn out or overtraining. 

On the flip side, there are stories of where an extended break leads to a breakthrough. Most famously, Desi Linden took time off of training in summer 2017 and then won the Boston Marathon in April 2018. However, it’s worth noting that (a) the extended break was not the exclusive factor in her victory, (b) she put in several months of hard training between the break and the race, and (c) like most elite runners, she is especially genetically gifted in her response to training. Not everyone will build back that quickly from an extended break, and an extended break is not a magic pill for a sudden racing breakthrough.

So what’s the best approach? How do you know if an extended break will harm or benefit you?

Should You Take a Break from Running?

Do You Need a Break from Running?

  • You show symptoms of overtraining, including loss of interest in running, loss of appetite, loss of libido, intense fatigue, and a serious dip in performance. 
  • You are struggling to fully recover from illness or injury. If training is detrimental to your health, you need to take a break.
  • You don’t enjoy your runs anymore. Struggling with motivation – where you don’t want to get out the door, but then enjoy your runs once you do – is one thing. All runners struggle with motivation at some point (and if you are, try these tips for overcoming a running slump). But when you hate every mile and can’t wait for each run to end, you may need a break from running. 
  • Running has become a mental stress. Running should be enjoyable and support good mental health. If running has become stressful or foments negative self-esteem or poor mental well-being, you likely need time off of running.
  • You simply want a break. If your intuition is telling you to take some time off, heed that. Your body is smart and will let you know what you need. 

How to Approach a Break from Running

You can take either a modified break or a complete break from running. There is no right or wrong approach here; ultimately, you want to do what works best for you.

  • Don’t put a timeline on it. Give yourself permission to not run until you actually want to run again. Maybe the desire will return in two weeks, or maybe the break lasts a few months. Don’t have a timeline of how many weeks you will take off. Give yourself as much time as you need. 
  • Try something different. Taking a break from running is not the same as taking a break from exercise. Try a new workout class or a different sport such as swimming or cycling. Take long walks or go for hikes. 
  • Scale back mileage and intensity significantly. If you opt for a modified break, remove all hard workouts (tempo runs, speedwork, etc) and reduce the number of days and distance you run. Don’t put any pressure on yourself to run a certain number of days per week or a certain mileage. Run short, run easy, and run less overall, without tracking pace or mileage.
  • Don’t put any races on the calendar. A race can serve as a great motivation to run, but it won’t fix your problem if you are burnt out. Take all pressure off of yourself to train and compete. This could mean a DNS (did not start) on the race you registered for and maybe even started training for. That is more than okay if it means taking care of yourself mentally. 
  • Get off of social media. Stop using Strava or Instagram if they have put unnecessary pressure on you. Social media should only enhance your life. 

How Do You Decide?

Ultimately, the decision to take an extended break is one that requires individual discernment. Only you know how you feel both mentally and physically. Ultimately, only you are impacted both by your running and by your choice to take a break from running. 

Do not worry about how much fitness you will lose or if you will gain any weight. Instead, focus on making the best choice for your mental health and physical well-being. When in doubt, try one week off and see how you feel. If you feel antsy to run, try a modified break. If you appreciate the week off and do not miss running, give yourself a longer break.

Voicing how you feel to others might help. If you have a coach, talk openly with her or him about taking an extended break from running. A good coach will support you no matter what. Talk to your running group or running buddy and let them know you need a break. You will receive support and not feel as if you are letting them down.

Returning to Running after a Break

If you take more than four weeks off of running, you cannot resume training where you were before your break. Doing so would increase your risk of injury or burnout – neither of which would do you any favors after a bout of overtraining. 

The approach outlined in Jack Daniels Running Formula provides a sound approach for returning to running. The amount of time off determines the rate at which you build back. 

If you took two to four weeks off of running, start back up with only easy runs and about 50% of your previous mileage for a couple weeks and then 75% of your mileage for a couple of weeks. If your break lasted 4-8 weeks, ease back with approximately 33% of your previous mileage, again all at an easy effort, for about two weeks and then gradually rebuild over the course of a few more weeks.

For more than 8 weeks back, you want to start with a few weeks at no more than 33% of your previous mileage and cautiously rebuild your base over several weeks before reintroducing any faster running. Even if you were not injured, returning to running would look similar to building back after an injury

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7 Responses

  1. Good topic! I am someone who is prone to overtraining all around not just running. I have gotten burned out before and just needed a break. For me, when running or any workout starts to feel like a chore, it’s time for a break.

  2. I don’t feel like I benefit from extended breaks. Or short breaks. No breaks for me! But, when I broke my leg, I was forced into it. I’m back (ish), but I don’t feel the time away did very much for me, besides giving me time to recover.

    This is such a hard one for athletes in general: knowing when to say when.

  3. Such a great topic (and a rather timely one for me). I’m just in the early-beginning phase of easing back, and I am so paranoid about re-injury. I’ve never had a broken bone, anywhere, to heal before, let alone one that was so crucial to running. So far, my short runs (1/2-3/4 mile) have felt good, but I’m going to take my time building back the distance and speed. My 3-month sabbatical (in 2017) rewarded me with some great races in 2018 and 2019, and some new PR’s…so here’s hoping this rally-back goes as smoothly.

  4. Most of my breaks have been due to injuries or coming back after my c-section. But this summer I took some time off just to avoid burnout and I think it was helpful. It was nice to know that my break was option and I could start back up whenever I wanted.

  5. I’ve never really taken a break from running except when I’ve had a surgery or an injury. I have cut back and just run for enjoyment a few times, skipping speedwork and things like long runs. That has worked well for me when I start to feel bored or burnt out with running.

  6. I like the way you put Desi Linden’s break from running into perspective.
    She has extraordinary talent.
    I have never taken off from running voluntarily, it was always due to an injury. Maybe I should have taken off before that! When I feel tired of running, I take a modified break and return with new vigour.

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