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These Pros Took a Break From Running—Here, the Signs You Might Need One Too

An optional reset can benefit your body and brain, making you a stronger runner when you come back.

benefits of a running break
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Shalane Flanagan didn’t intend to take a break from running when she retired. But after double knee surgeries and rehab kept her from running for nearly a year, she’s embracing the idea that proactive breaks can prevent unintended time away from running.

“I’m already planning not to run for a month post-Project Eclipse,” she told Runner’s World before the New York City Marathon, the final of six races she ran in 42 days. “It’ll be a forced regeneration of my body. I’m obviously asking a lot of it, and I’m not hurt or anything, but, since running is no longer my job, I do want to appreciate my ability to say I’m going to rest now and do something different with my body. ”

Flanagan’s not the only athlete preaching the benefits of an extended break from running. This summer, former Boston Marathon champion and Olympian Des Linden posted on Twitter that she hadn’t run a step for a full month.

It wasn’t Linden's first extended break either; she had done the same in August 2017, after coming in second at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, seventh at the 2016 Rio Olympic marathon, and fourth in 2017 Boston Marathon. That time away from the sport did her good: When she returned to the Boston Marathon in 2018 (a particularly grueling year), she won the damn thing.

Molly Huddle—who recently announced a break from running due to pregnancy— took three weeks off during the fall of 2017 before she started training again. “Sometimes you catastrophize taking time off, but my vacation launched the best year of training of my life. It was a really good lesson to stop gripping things so tightly so I could reset, recover, and mentally rejuvenate,” she told Runner’s World in 2021. Four months later, she set the American record in the half marathon.

Back in 2016, Molly Seidel skipped the U.S. Olympic Trials to check into treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety and disordered eating. She came back to running stronger and better for it: After making the Olympic marathon team in her first race of that distance during the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, she won bronze in 2020 Tokyo Olympics—the first American woman to medal in 17 years.

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Why Smart Runners Occasionally Step Away From Running

Runners—especially distance runners like the women above—tend to push through pain and discomfort (after all. what’s more uncomfortable than a marathon?).

“One of the most difficult things for athletes to do is take time off,” says Nicole Detling, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Utah, and author of Don't Leave Your Mind Behind: The Mental Side of Performance. “There’s that old adage, ‘someone else is out there training when you aren’t.’ But the reality is, if you don’t take time off, you’ll be forced to. And then you lose control over when you’re taking time off, how you’re taking time off, and when you get to come back.”

Just like your body needs recovery after a single hard workout, it needs recovery from extended efforts—whether that’s a marathon training cycle or a track season. When you put your body under stress from exercise, it breaks down your muscle fibers; during the recovery phase, your body works to repair those microtears. But that takes time. And the more prolonged that stress, the bigger of a break you’ll need.

Your brain benefits from that time off, too. “Our brains regenerate just like our muscles do,” says Detling. “Taking a break has a really positive impact on our thoughts, moods, emotions, even the structure of our brains. In terms of mental health, that rest from stress is necessary so we can come back stronger.”

That’s especially important considering stress isn’t just physical. Yes, stress from exercise will affect your body and brain (i.e. you’re sore and tired after a workout), but stress from work, family drama, or any kind of life change will stack physiological and psychological effects on top of that (i.e. exercise feels harder because stress about a big presentation or say, a global pandemic, is zapping your energy). It’s a vicious cycle.

“Our bodies and brains, you can’t separate the two—they’re constantly giving each other messages as to what’s going on,” says Detling. “And even if we don’t read those messages correctly—for example, your body says you need a break and your brain says no, we’re going to keep going—eventually, one of them is going to overcome the other one and force you to take a break.”

If you don’t have the energy, then you won’t produce anything that you’re excited about.

Not listening to those cues can lead to physical injury and mental burnout—both of which can be debilitating. It’s pretty obvious how physical injury can sideline your running, but don’t discount how the state of your brain affects running.

When you’re mentally fatigued, your overall performance in endurance workouts and high-performance sessions is negatively impacted, a 2017 review of 11 studies published in the journal Sports Medicine found. And that can translate into physical injury as well.

“If you don’t have the energy, then you won’t produce anything that you’re excited about. And if you push your body too hard, you won’t be able to reap the rewards of the work,” says Flanagan. “I've learned the hard way, and I’m finally embracing rest. Some of my best performances have come after a forced time out. Choosing to take time off takes a lot of self-control. I love to run, but if I want to run until I’m at least 70, which is the hope, I know taking that time off will be to my benefit in the long game.”

How to Know When to Take an Intentional Break from Running

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula here. But one of the biggest signs, says Detling, is that you aren’t enjoying running anymore. “I don’t care how much you love what you do, there are days you don’t feel like doing it. That’s normal,” she explains. “But understand what your baseline is. If that happens to you once or twice a month or is weather-dependent, okay. When that frequency starts to increase—from a couple times a month to four, six, or even more times—that’s a sign to step back and ask yourself what’s going on.”

Maybe there’s a logical explanation, and sometimes it is okay to push through runs where you’re not feeling super motivated. But if that frequency is increasing along with other signs of overtraining—elevated resting heart rate, sleep disturbances, higher perceived effort for the same workout sessions, frequent colds and low-level viruses—that’s your body waving a big ol’ red flag at you, and it’s up to you to heed that sign.

When your body feels refreshed—when you feel strong and fit—it’s easy to fall in love with running.

How long you step back is just as dependent on your personal situation, says Detling—sometimes it’s a week, sometimes a month, sometimes even longer. “The most important thing to be aware of is why you feel like you need a break,” she explains. “The answer to that question of why can help you determine the appropriate length.”

But leave the door open, she adds. “If you think you need a week and at the end of that week you aren’t feeling ready yet, maybe you need some more time. Or if you gave yourself a month and two weeks in, you’re chomping at the bit, maybe it is time to get back out there.” Working with the resources around you—a coach, a physical therapist, a performance consultant—can help you find the right answers.

When you give your body that break, your brain will automatically get a boost as well. “A lot of times, we run ourselves into the ground so slowly, you don’t realize it until you’re dreading your next workout,” says Detling. “When your body feels refreshed—when you feel strong and fit—it’s so easy to fall in love with running again.”

Huddle would agree: “There were some years where I was tired enough that I didn’t even run ‘a little bit’ for the planned weeks [off], and doing so was revitalizing,” she wrote in an earlier piece for Runner’s World. “I was itching to run when it was time to come back to the season.”

And Flanagan’s rediscovered love of running couldn’t have been clearer during Project Eclipse, where she ran significantly below her 3:00 goal in every single marathon, culminating with running her best time of the entire project on the course where she became the first American woman to win in 40 years back in 2017.

“Running can and should be really fun,” Flanagan says. “The days or weeks off, here and there, those are to my benefit. It’s about the big picture—not just getting back to peak fitness as quick as possible.”

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