Convincing us runners to take time off is always a struggle. But given the holiday hustle, the pandemic still happening, and general life stressors always looming, it’s okay if you’re tempted to hang up your sneakers for a little while.
Listen, even the elites do it. Des Linden—former Boston Marathon champion, Olympian, and all-around awesome human—previously posted on Twitter that she hadn’t run a step for a full month. When a well-intentioned commenter asked what she’d been doing in the meantime, she responded (with the typical Des wittiness): “Growing a sofa on my ass.”
Linden may have been nonchalant about her time off, but for a lot of us, a month feels like a long time. What will happen to your Strava stats? How will this affect your training status on your smartwatch? Forget the metrics—will you even be able to run again after all that time off?
The short answer: Yes. But you will likely lose some fitness. Here’s what to know about taking a month off from running and how it’ll affect your performance—and help it.
What happens to your fitness when you take a month off from running?
After just a few weeks of little to no exercise, your heart starts to show significant signs of detraining, according to a 2018 study on marathoners published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. And adults who took a month off after following a regular cardio routine for four straight months lost almost all their aerobic gains in that month, according to earlier research published in Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases.
But a month isn’t that long and if you were running regularly before, you can bounce back fast. “If you take a month off, it will take you about a month to get back to where you were,” says Polly de Mille, R.N., certified strength and conditioning specialist and director of Tisch Sports Performance Center at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS). Think about it this way: You get a month to ride out this year, and another month to ease back into exercise at the start of a new one. Sounds pretty nice, right?
For most people, though, taking a month off of running doesn’t mean melting into your couch. And if you keep active in ways beyond running, you can still keep your fitness up. “Most of the research shows that three sessions a week at at least 70 percent of your VO2 max—whether that’s swimming or biking or an online class—is going to do a pretty good job of maintaining your aerobic conditioning,” says de Mille.
So if you’re tempted to take time off from running to give your body a break or restore your motivation mentally, you can easily maintain most of your fitness by doing some cross-training.
While aerobic fitness starts to decline in seven to 14 days, muscle loss typically starts to occur in as little as three days, says Krishna Curry, community and digital marketing director for Run Mercury and contributing coach at RUNGRL. “What’s important to consider is what your training looked like before you take a break,” she says. “If you’ve been training intensely over the past several weeks, you’ve put a lot into your tank so it’s not going to be as fast a decline as somebody who wasn’t that consistent with their running or who was a lot weaker to start with. And you’re going to adapt a lot faster when you come back to training.”
What benefits can you gain from taking a month off from running?
That month off could actually be a good thing. Remember, training is a stressor. Your body can only handle so much stress at once. If you’re already stressed about wrapping up work before the end of the year, or say, avoiding COVID-19 variants as best you can, layering that stress with high-intensity training (i.e. running), can put you on a road to overtraining and burnout. “At this point, we’re not recovering the way we used to,” says de Mille. “There’s only so much we can take.” So if a break from running is what you need, that’s self-care.
Plus, a break is an opportunity to set new goals. When you’re following a training plan, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for things you know you should be doing. Forget about mileage, and use a break to develop other areas of strength that you normally don’t have as much time to focus on because you’re racking up double digit runs, says Curry.
“You can build your strength, do core work, zero in on mobility—things that will make running easier when you do get back it,” she says. You may not be running, but you’re shoring up all the weak links. “Now’s the time to address any compensations or imbalances you’ve been coping with so you can rebuild yourself properly,” Curry adds.
How do you ease back into running after a month off?
You especially need to be respectful of the orthopedic stress of running. “There’s nothing quite like the impact that you experience when you’re running, so if your tendons and muscles haven’t experienced that sort of eccentric stress in a while, your cardiovascular system may be way ahead of your musculoskeletal system in terms of readiness to go long or work hard.”
Sure, you’ll probably be excited to get back to it. But don’t feel like you need to make up for lost time. “It’s really important that people map out their plan beforehand so they can stay consistent,” says Curry.
Look back at the weekly volume you were maintaining before your break and pick the bare minimum—a healthy volume of running that you can maintain without inciting any injury, she says. Then, she typically starts by adding one to two miles per week. As the volume increases relative to your starting point, those weekly increases get smaller. Just make sure to “lower your expectations for what you’re going to do when you go back,” says de Mille. “Be patient with yourself and listen to your body.”
And if that first post-break run doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped, take comfort in the fact that even pros like Linden struggle. Just know it doesn’t get any worse than day two.