3 Tips to Run Strong Through the Holidays

Thrilled with his finish in the Marine Corps Marathon in October 2007, Alvin Gunkel of Fairfax, Virginia, promptly signed up for a spring marathon and took a few weeks off to recover. After his break, however, he found it hard to resume training. "I didn't run once between November 14 and December 7," says Gunkel, 36. He went out for a six-mile run on Christmas Eve, began to feel pain in his knee around mile four, and ended up limping home.

Gunkel's abrupt return from his holiday hiatus resulted in two months of physical therapy and his doctor telling him to forget about his spring marathon. "That was pretty devastating," Gunkel says. "I thought I could do anything after Marine Corps."

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'Tis the season for training to come undone. Between social gatherings, family obligations, and the pursuit of the perfect present, runners oft en find it difficult to stick to a routine. And once the mileage plummets, so goes the body and mind.

"If you flat-out stop running around Thanksgiving and don't pick it up again until January, you could conceivably lose 30 percent of your cardiovascular fitness," says exercise physiologist Jeff Potteiger, Ph.D., of Miami University in Ohio. "You could be back to where you were when you were sedentary."

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A total lapse in training not only shrinks your heart and widens your waistline, it can also hurt your head. "When you stop running, things tend to go south in a hurry, psychologically," says sports psychologist and runner Michael Sachs, Ph.D., of Temple University. "You're used to running to help reduce your stress levels. Now you're making a choice not to do it at one of the most stressful times of the year."

Fortunately, you don't have to log mega-mileage during the hectic holiday season to preserve your fitness, sanity, and motivation. Here's how to do just enough to keep you ready to train in earnest come the New Year.

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Stay Fit

An abbreviated training schedule can keep you in shape—if it packs enough intensity and enough duration. "Just because you're doing less doesn't mean you're wasting your time," Potteiger says. "You can cut back a day or two a week and still maintain your fitness, as long as you train hard enough and long enough to offset the fact that you're training less."

That said, all runners should aim for a minimum of three runs per week. If you were getting out six days and logging 40 to 50 miles per week for marathon training, you can cut back 50 percent of your volume and maintain a baseline fitness level. But that may be too much of a cutback if you logged fewer miles. Two of your three workouts should elevate your heart rate to work your cardiovascular system and maintain your VO2 max level, or at least prevent it from significantly decreasing during this reduced-training period. The third workout should target endurance—reaching at least half the distance of your previous long runs.

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