Why You Should Take Breaks from Running: The Value of Weekly Rest Days, Cutback Weeks, and Off Weeks

Why You Should Take Breaks from Running

A glaring “0 miles”marks a week in my December training log. From December 5 to 13 of last year (2016) I did not lace up my running shoes – not a single mile was run. After that zero mile week, I ran a fraction of my normal mileage for the next month. My recovery run distance became my long run for a solid month.

Why? I wasn’t injured, sick, or burnt out. I had just completed my goal race of the year, 26.2 miles at a pace fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I was in peak shape – so why take a break and not keep training, especially since I so quickly resumed training for a race after the break?

The emphasis on getting faster often focuses on the active part of training – the workouts, the mileage, the ancillary work. And while you certainly can’t run a fast half marathon without threshold training or a marathon without demanding long runs, these hard workouts would be less effective without taking breaks and focusing on recovery.

Breaks from running can occur on a weekly through annual/semi-annual basis. These are different types of breaks that achieve different purposes: better recovery between hard workouts, injury prevention, and a much-needed physical and mental break after a race. 

Why You Should Take Breaks from Running: The Value of Weekly Rest Days, Cutback Weeks, and Off Weeks

Why Take Breaks from Running?

Most runners are hesitant to take scheduled breaks from running. Rest days make many of us antsy and full weeks off render even the sanest of runners completely stir-crazy. But there are benefits to not running, whether it’s for a day or a week.

Protect Your Immune System

Have you ever experienced the post marathon sniffles? I certainly have!

Intense exercise such as races, very hard speed workouts, or very long runs can temporarily suppress your immune system. Intense exercise floods your body with stress hormones, in order to get your body to heal those damaged muscles quickly. Your immune system responds by dealing with that stress first over other potential viruses and bacteria – thus increasing your chances of getting sick.

While a suppressed immune system is mostly a problem after a race, if you train without sufficient breaks from running, your immune system is constantly suppressed until you just break down and get sick or experience chronic fatigue.  

Avoid Mental Burnout and Overtraining

Training at the same mileage and intensity week after week, month after month can actually set you up for a plateau, mental burnout, or physical overtraining. A plateau occurs when you stop seeing improvement in your training. Mental burnout is that moment when you suddenly despise running and find excuses not to run whenever you can. Overtraining includes plateau and mental burnout, but also indicates a point of pushing your body too hard. The signs of overtraining include loss of appetite, changes in sleep habits, physical plateau, mental burnout, and unintentional changes in weight.

Weekly rest days will reduce the risk of a plateau, mental burnout and overtraining, but the best insurance against these is schedule longer breaks from your running. A few days completely off after a race and cutback weeks during training will give both your mind and body the recovery they need and keep you running for years to come.

Honestly, I sort of enjoy my breaks from running. I see them as a reward for working hard, and I’m more likely to stay disciplined through a training cycle and dig deep during a race if I know I will have a few days to rest.

Decreased Risk of Injury

Repetitive motion and the high impact of running are what most often cause injury (with factors such as biomechanical irregularities increasing the risk of injury). The same muscles and joints get pounded over and over again – and without a break, this can lead to sprains, strains, overuse injuries, tendonitis, and stress fractures. By letting your body properly recover from the wear and tear of training, you decrease your risk of injury.

Why You Should Take Breaks from Running: The Value of Weekly Rest Days, Cutback Weeks, and Off Weeks

Types of Breaks from Running

Weekly: Rest Day

While rest days realistically occur on the day of the week that best fits your schedule, ideally rest days would occur on the day after a long run or a hard workout. Taking a rest day after a hard run gives your body extra recovery when it needs it the most.

You can take a complete rest day or do some active recovery – yoga, Pilates, walking, or very gentle and short cross-training.

Monthly: Cutback Weeks

Cutback weeks is the colloquial term for a reduction in mileage and often intensity. Cutback weeks serve as mini-recovery weeks while still letting you train for a race. Most importantly, cutback weeks will get you to the start line of a race injury-free, mentally ready to race, and peaked (versus overtrained). A reputable training plan or knowledgeable running coach will schedule cutback weeks every 3-5 weeks, depending on your age, goals, and injury profile.

Annually/Semi-Annually: Off Weeks

Off weeks are deliberately scheduled weeks off from running, usually after a goal race or the end of the season. These are not weeks that accidentally happen due to injury! Rather, a deliberate week off from running can save you from having to take several weeks off from running due to an injury. 

Out of these three types of breaks from running, off weeks seem to be the most neglected by recreational runners yet the most important. Post-race rest weeks are a staple in the post-race training plans of elite runners, but many recreational athletes will often jump right back into running as normal within a couple days after a race.

Now, you may say that you don’t train as hard or race as fast as an elite, so you don’t need as much recovery as they do.  But you are training hard for you and racing fast for you, and you still need to let your mind and body recover after a race and end of training season. You may not take two weeks off after your marathon – but I encourage you to a week off after a marathon and a few days after a half marathon.

After your break off, don’t immediately resume high mileage and twice per week hard workouts. Spend a couple weeks running easy, maybe even a full month of easy runs only after your marathon.

I promise you, taking deliberately planned breaks from your running will not compromise your hard-earned fitness or your goals. In fact, I think it’s essential for achieving your goals and improving your fitness. Those first couple runs back will feel sluggish, but you will quickly return to normal within a week or so of returning to running.

After my post-marathon break – one week off and three weeks of only easy running – the first week back to training did indeed feel harder. My body wasn’t quite used to speedwork or long runs, but it quickly remembered. Within another week, I was running faster paces in my tempo runs and cruising through long runs. Mentally, I was enjoying every moment of training and felt energized during my runs. I don’t think I would have felt so good and had so many strong workouts had I not taken a break from running.

Take that break – and your body will thank you.

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner!

How often do you take rest days?
Do you take time off after a race?
Have you ever overtrained or had mental burnout?

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33 Responses

  1. I find it much easier to take time off after a hard race when I know I need to recover than at times when I haven’t been training hard. Usually I take a full week off after a race, and start adding in some light cross training or yoga towards the end of the week. And I always take a rest day every week! Either a complete day off, or I do a little yoga or core work or something really easy.

  2. I really think I should have take a week off after last spring’s long island half. I just never felt I “needed” one since I was so used to running that distance. but I do think, looking back, that because I didn’t, I was sluggish and achy in my hip out of nowhere about a month later. this year, if I run the half, I will take the time off!

    1. It really does help to take complete rest – no aerobic cross-training for a couple days after a race even helps. Fitness won’t be lost in that short of time, but a lot of recovery can be made.

  3. I agree 100% with this! I think Tina Muir put it best when she said you have to have COURAGE to run slow (on your slow days) and to take rest days. I feel like it takes a lot of courage but your body always thanks you. I take cut-back weeks often and at least one rest day per week…and I love it!!

  4. Great tips! I take either one or two rest days a week and have grown to love those days of little movement and extra rest. I am running my first marathon this year and this is great to see how long I should take time off post-race!

    1. Thank you! Rest days are nice in their own way – they just feel so refreshing. A week or even two off after a marathon really does help in preventing burnout and injury – and you worked hard and should celebrate that!

  5. I looooove taking time off from running (LOL how terrible does that sound?). Sometimes I need to give myself a chance to miss it. Absence, heart growing fonder, that kinda thing.

    I believe a lot of it also depends on your personality and relationship with the sport. Highly structured people and those who use running as their me time often have a harder time taking a break than people like me who enjoy it more in moderation and/or are a little scarttered hence it’s surprisingly easy to let a few days go by without squeezing the miles in sometimes!!

    1. That doesn’t sound terrible at all! I think you’re right about personality – I’ve also noticed that highly disciplined runners can take breaks well, since they have the discipline not to run when they know that they shouldn’t.

  6. I can’t even talk about how much taking a break at the end of last year changed my running. I wasn’t in a good place and taking that time completely off made a huge difference. I think if I kept going the way I was I wouldn’t be making the huge improvements and love it like I do now!

  7. My injury in November forced me to take a break, and it sucked, but I think it did similar things because my body needed a break (no pun intended since sometimes that’s a literal “break” for many). I do take weekly rest days but haven’t really incorporated many recovery weeks, and probably need to do that. I was injury-free for years before the knee issue, and I do agree it is hard to take time off unless you have to, so I’m hoping to stay injury-free this year but also take a complete few days off after my goal races.

    1. Recovery weeks will decrease the risk of those forced injury breaks – and they are easier to return from (one week off of running versus several weeks off due to injury). Racing hard really wears and tears on the body, even at the half marathon distance.

  8. I absolutely agree! And unfortunately had to learn the hard way on that one.. I jumped back in too soon after my first marathon and had my first stress fracture. The mental break is so key too… I find I look forward to getting back to running with a little time off.

  9. You do know how much I balked at this title, right? HA ha ha! I read it because I respect you. And, yes, you’re right, which I hate, because I don’t ever want to take breaks from running but just because I don’t want to stop doesn’t mean I shouldn’t stop. Putting my back out in Mexico was a good wake-up call for me. We’ve got a crap tonne of snow right now but I’m still plugging away on the treadmill. Sigh…

    1. Awww you’re so sweet! I’m glad you read through. It takes a lot of discipline to take a break, and if you’re not racing you can do less mileage rather than complete no-running days. I really hope you get to run outside soon!

  10. I 100% agree. It’s healthy for your body, and also mentally, to take a break from running. When I feel myself getting sick of running, I know it’s time for a break.

  11. Gosh, I know so many people who over-train, and their idea of “recovery” is the 12-hours following their post-run shower. I’m a huge believer in rest days, weeks (like you mentioned…following a tough race), and am currently enjoying the last couple weeks of my “off-season.” I’m still running, and cross-training, but I’m doing things scaled back…and will be building my base back up for spring training (and a summer marathon). I love this post…you totally speak my language!!

  12. Gah it just deleted my comment…

    Anyways. I said I love taking breaks. They’re so helpful! And they keep me refreshed and happy to be running. 🙂

  13. I actually love my breaks, of all three types. 🙂 Most of the time I actually schedule 2 rest days per week, because that seems to work best to keep my body going strong.

  14. Serious question, im not a serious runner but i am active i try and run a mile per day, however i find that im getting gassed easier and when i take a 2-3 day hiatus from my running and get back into it i can run further and faster whats the deal?

    1. Hi Rob, Running every day without a rest day can leave some people fatigued. You may find that resting for a day between each run helps, or that slowing down on your runs helps also. Without knowing more about your specific situation, I can’t offer any other advice, so my best advice is to make sure you are taking at least one rest day per week and running at a comfortable effort for a majority of your runs.

  15. Thanks for the prompt reply, im 29, 220lbs, 6,1 very fit, i work out quite often and i can do a mile in under 10 minutes.

  16. I know this is a late comment but thank you… I’ve been running for 10 years and did a good job of taking necessary rest days and weeks until 2017. I dealt with some emotional trauma and relied on running to keep my mind off of it. For the past year I’ve been neglecting my aching body and over training . My biggest insecurity is that if I take a week long break of no running I will gain so much weight I will get depressed and need new clothes even tho I eat healthy enough and don’t over do it. I used running as a way to avoid my problems and reading your article finally convinced me I need a week off. The past weeks my runs haven’t been what they used to be and it made me sad. My feet are bruised and aching and I’m finally taking that week off. Thank you

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