Don't beat yourself up if you're taking time off running because of an injury or illness, or just because it's part of your training program. At some point everyone's likely to take a break from running for several days or even a few weeks. But if you use that time wisely, you can set yourself up to come back rested, rejuvenated and ready to run better than ever.
How to Know When It's Time for a Break
Overtraining is common among runners, and it's a leading cause of injury among recreational runners. But if you know what symptoms to look out for, you can determine when it's time to take a break from running and prevent injuries before they happen. It's important to remember that every body is different, so you can't simply follow hard and fast weekly mileage guidelines. The best way to avoid overtraining and injury is to listen to your body. If you feel fatigued a lot of the time, if you're experiencing a sustained decrease in running performance or if you feel you're always on the verge of injury, then it's very likely that you're overtraining, and it's probably a good idea to take a week or two off from running. But don't sit around lamenting your bad luck—there are a few things you can do during this downtime that can help you come back stronger than ever.
There seems to be something inherent in the nature of runners that makes us bad at resting, especially for prolonged periods of time. Unfortunately, simply taking one or two days off from running, or even from all exercise, isn't enough to allow your body to reset itself and repair the damage that's caused by overtraining.
You don't have to sit around and do nothing for days or weeks, but you should select activities that are truly restorative in nature and allow the muscles and joints that running taxes to have a chance to rest and repair themselves. Now is not the time to load up the squat bar and go for a new personal best. Instead, opt for a slow, rhythmic activity that gently moves the body's joints through a full range of motion. Go for long, leisurely walks or bike rides, or take a tai chi or restorative yoga class a few times a week.
Getting more sleep or higher quality sleep can help your body recover more quickly, too. Add the extra time you would have spent running to your sleep each night, and take note of how you feel after a few days of better rest. If you find your energy levels are higher, you need less caffeine to get through the day and your muscles and joints ache less in the morning, it could be a sign that you should be getting more sleep all of the time. If that's the case, make a plan for how you'll keep those extra minutes of sleep in your daily routine once you return to running.
Strengthen Your Core and Posture Muscles
If you do any cross training during your running break, focus on strengthening those muscles that are fundamental to good running form. Because so many runners fall into a hunched posture, with shoulders rounded forward as they become fatigued, runners should focus on their back muscles first.
Developing strength and muscular endurance in the muscles all along the spine helps maintain an open chest and promotes correct, "proud" running posture. Assessing which muscles are weakest in your core and working on those can also pay big dividends once you return to running. And the core doesn't only consist of your abdominal muscles—it encompasses the muscles of the lower back and the entire hip/glute complex, too. Overdeveloped abdominal muscles can lead to lower back strain and throw your form off. Similarly, tight hip flexors and weak glutes can lead to a host of problems with the hips, knees and lower legs. Work with a trainer or running coach to find out where your areas of weakness or imbalance are, and spend your time away from running on correcting those deficiencies.
Roll, Rest, Repeat
While I firmly believe that a good sports massage therapist is worth his or her weight in gold, I personally don't have that much gold laying around, so I usually have to opt for the next best thing: self massage or myofascial release. Depending on where your problem spots are, you can use balls of various sizes, rolling massage sticks or foam rollers in different sizes and densities to loosen up overly tight tissue and increase blood flow to the area, bathing the tissue in healing fluids. All runners can benefit from doing a short self massage session several days per week, and the perfect time to develop this habit is when you're taking a break from running.
Listen to your body and remember that good training includes rest days or weeks as part of the program. Honoring these down periods can not only help prevent injuries in the future, they can return you to your next phase of training healthier and stronger than when you left.Sign up for your next race.