I see a bad habit forming in many runners: the lack of a recovery cycle after their big events or racing seasons. Too many are simply finishing one race (often a marathon) and immediately starting to train for the next one. You can get away with this a few times, but some runners get burnt out and leave the sport for new activities after doing so too often; the grind of always training takes a serious toll. Others may reach a performance plateau after a few races and fall well short of their potential, simply because they don’t recover properly.
I understand their drive. I love running, too, and there is nothing better than being fully engaged in training for a big race. But never taking a break ignores one of the most important principles that we learned from great coaches and athletes over the last century: runners need to recover properly.
Sensible athletes build breaks into their training year. Not a reduced week or two of training every now and then, but weeks of complete rest. They don’t only rest; they gain weight, too. Some add almost a stone to their normally light frames while they enjoy time with their families, take holidays and do other things they normally can’t do because of their training.
Planned breaks rejuvenate the body and mind in ways that outweigh losses in fitness. They take the pressure off – you don’t feel your training is never-ending, or that you’re jumping from one goal to the next. The chemistry of the brain, as well as that of the hormonal and immune systems are compromised during periods of hard training – breaks rejuvenate these systems, allowing you to train better, more consistently and with more zeal in the next training cycle.
Will you lose fitness? Yes. How much is hard to calculate and will depend on how long a break you take. But it’s not about how out of shape you get; it’s about recovering completely and being ready to attack the next training cycle.
The recovery phase isn’t just the downtime, but also the time needed to rebuild mileage and pace. Many runners fail even when they do take time off, because upon their return they jump right back into full training – feeling they have to get in shape quickly. You’ll need to plan three to five weeks of rebuilding into your full training load. I usually start at 50 per cent of full mileage, then increase by 10-20 per cent each week (with a recovery week of lower mileage every two to four weeks) until I’m back to 100 per cent. Use common sense and build back slowly.
In the end, what’s the rush? A few weeks of downtime never ruined anyone’s running career – quite the opposite, in fact.