It’s late at night and you’re curled up in bed with your beloved smartphone. You open up Instagram to watch some stories, mostly of your favorite runners, the ones you follow out of genuine interest and the ones you follow with morbid curiosity. And then the thought pops in your head: how do these people continue to train for race after race? Why is everything about running? Don’t they ever take any breaks?
The short answer is yes. Many runners take breaks, and these breaks often look different from runner to runner. Even pros take breaks after intense training cycles. For some, a break can be as short as a week or two off. For others, it may be longer, lingering into months-long hiatus territory.
Even so, some people continue to run during breaks, but focus less on structured training and more on running for enjoyment. Like many things, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. And, it’s true: it’s often difficult to take time off from running. But I’m here to reassure you that’s it’s not only possible but can also be done in a way that preserves both our fitness and our egos.
Taking a Break on Your Terms
First, we need to get real about something else. Often, our breaks are unintentional, the result of an injury, burnout, or life in general. These breaks are out of our control. But did you know that one way to prevent an unexpected break is to take an intentional break?
Think about it: taking a break on your terms is far preferable to having a break forced on you. It’s important to pay attention to your body throughout training. If you feel that you’re finding it difficult to stay focused, motivated, or having a hard time enjoying the process, it might be time to take time off, no matter where you are in your training. This doesn’t mean throwing in the towel after a few bad workouts. It’s more taking notes and noticing patterns.
I’ve been running off and on since 1999. When I’m on, I’m on – committed to goals, the process, racing, and everything else. When I’m off, I’m off. I guess I’m fortunate in that sense. I can walk away for a while, recharge, and come back. My longest hiatus was four years, back in 2005. During this time I don’t recall logging miles much and I certainly didn’t enter any races until the fall of 2009. In 2013, I took another extended break after training intensely for a few years. This break was a lot shorter, but featured a few months of no running at all. I returned in 2014 to run a long-fought-for 5k PR and I’ve played around with the marathon until this spring.
At present, I’m in hiatus territory. I don’t feel the urge to sign up for a race any time soon and there are some days I don’t feel like running at all. So I don’t. That doesn’t mean that some days aren’t difficult. There are days when an idea for a race pops in my head but by the time I’m out the door and on my run I have little desire to pick up the pace, let alone think about planning a new training cycle. Despite what the Instagrams and Facebooks say, this is normal. This is the body’s way of saying, I need a break from all that serious crap. I need a breather!
Curiosity and openness
Training takes a lot out of us. Sometimes when I feel like I need a break, it’s easy to think I’ll just hang up the spikes for good. It’s common to take an all or nothing viewpoint, but it is the fear of unknown that scares us into thinking this way. And this fear can lead us to not taking a break because we fear losing running for good. We want to control the future. But after a break, even a long one, most of us end up returning. And yet sometimes we don’t. That’s ok, too. The best bet is to enter a break with curiosity and openness.
I’m currently channeling my curiosity with yoga and swimming. I’ve done both in the past but never consistently. It’s become fun finding new ways of challenging my body, such as becoming more flexible than I ever thought possible and finally learning how to do a flip turn in the pool (I’m still learning by the way). Sure, running gives many of us the best endorphin high, but are there other ways of feeling good? During a break is the time to explore!
Another difficulty in taking a break is leaving behind our identity. To work with this challenge, I tend to focus more on what I do via verbs instead of nouns. Instead of calling myself a runner, I simply say, I run. I also write, now I do yoga and swim, meditate, and nap. Verbs are constantly changing as a result of living. We become defined by what we are currently doing rather than feeling like we have to live up to a noun we give ourselves.
This struggle becomes most apparent on social media. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others, especially when we are taking a break and others are not. If you find yourself struggling with jealousy or comparison, a simple fix is merely stating, “They are running. I am not.”
Probably the biggest challenge of a taking a break is dealing with guilt … save the best for last, eh? As people who run (I’m using a verb instead of a noun, see?), we are used to the high that exercise brings. Many of us also love the fact that we need to eat a lot more when training at higher levels. When that level decreases significantly, it is common to experience guilt.
Guilt is often the result of shoulding on ourselves, whether it be comparing ourselves to others (“so and so is still running at a high level, I should be able to, too”) or being hard on ourselves (“I didn’t run XX amount of miles so I shouldn’t be eating this piece of cake”). If we can recognize the amount of shoulding we do, we can lessen the amount of guilt we feel.
Yes, by taking time off we run the risk of losing fitness and gaining some weight. But take the pro athlete approach for a second. Many honor the time off and look forward to letting the body recalibrate to its natural set point. This, like many other aspects of training, involves paying close attention to your body and its cues.
For instance, a break is the perfect time to practice mindful eating. Even if we aren’t running much for a while, we still need to eat. Paying attention to how we eat and our satiety not only helps keep us at a healthy resting weight but it can also nip those negative thought patterns in the bud. And if you do find this type of guilt inhibiting you from taking a break, it might be best to seek out the help of a counselor.
Taking time off doesn’t need to mean stop running all together. Experiment with less structure, observe your responses to mixing things up and not documenting every single run. Run when you feel like it at whatever pace feels right. Run without your watch. Approaching a break with these mindful skills will go a long way, whether or not you ultimately return.
And don’t worry, you’ll most likely return!
How do you handle breaks?