Scheduling breaks is something you should add to your training program. Your coach might tell you to relax for 3-4 weeks after a long, tough, running season. Or maybe life just gets in the way. Unplanned breaks, such as injury, may also occur. Either way, how you return to running after a break is something that needs to be accounted for to prevent yourself from getting injured (or re-injured) when running again.
Many physiological aspects change whilst on a break from training. A decrease in VO2 max and cardiac output, these are just some effects that arise from not running for an extended period of time (Mujika and Padilla, 2001). And whilst you may be able to cross-train or manage your diet over the break (like one might do while managing an injury), some form of detraining is still going to occur (Sousa et. al, 2019). Imagine you are at school (or uni) studying for your finals. Unless you revise all the content you’ve covered throughout the year, you’ll spend more time re-learning topics you covered at the start because you’ve most likely forgotten what’s in that topic. Similarly, if you stop running for a period of time, your body has to re-learn how to deal with the physiological stress when you run.
Getting back to your previous fitness can also be difficult. Unfortunately, the scientific literature tells us that it takes some time to return to the fitness we once had. A study by Coyle et. al (1984), concluded that for every day not running (after around 3 days of doing nothing), you need to spend 2-3 days retraining to get to pre-break status. That can be a really long time, especially if you are injured and cannot run for 2 months or more.
There are those that will try to cram as much running as possible the moment they can start up again, trying to make up for lost time. This can potentially lead to injury, which is not what anyone would want after coming from a break. Luckily there are two tips that I can share that you can incorporate into your program to optimise your return to running:
Start slower, then work your way up (no matter how long you’ve been out for)
This is especially critical for those coming back from a planned break. Don’t try running similar splits or mileage you could pre-break. You will be running at a higher intensity, thus you’ll get tired more easily and end up hurting yourself in the first few days. You can still improve your fitness by training slower to begin with, then increase the intensity/mileage over a given period of time. In fact, running journalists, such as Matt Fitzgerald, have published a plethora of literature on the benefits of running slower (even training slowly all year round for long-distance events). Even if you’ve been out for just a week or two, take the first couple of sessions slightly easier than you would and by the end of the week you should be ok to continue with your program. I recommend measuring your heart rate when going out for runs, as this is one of the bests methods to measure intensity, and try to keep this in a set range. For example, if you're doing a steady-state run for 45 minutes, you might set yourself a range of 115-130bpm. This will help optimise your return to running, so be sure to take this into consideration.
Take your time increasing your mileage (especially coming back from injury)
“Patience is a virtue!” In today's age, everyone wants instant results or be an expert at something in a couple of days/weeks. We must remember to take our time in getting back to running. If it has taken you 4+ years of dedication and grit to get to a decent fitness level pre-break, don’t expect it to reappear in 3 weeks if you haven’t been running for 5 months. This is especially crucial for those runners coming from an injury. We all know how tempting it is to get straight back into logging your mileage on Strava the moment you are given the all-clear. Take your time to work up the mileage to pre-injury status. It may feel like it will take forever, but you’d rather wait the extra month to get yourself ready than sustain another injury. Even if getting back into it because life got in the way, increase the mileage every week and hopefully you’ll be in shape and start getting some serious adaptations to improve your performance.
If you follow these tips, you will be sure to return to running safely and start getting yourself ready to stay fit, healthy and competitive.
Coyle, E. F., Martin 3rd, W. H., Sinacore, D. R., Joyner, M. J., Hagberg, J. M., & Holloszy, J. O. (1984). Time course of loss of adaptations after stopping prolonged intense endurance training. Journal of Applied Physiology, 57(6), 1857-1864.
Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2001). Muscular characteristics of detraining in humans. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33(8), 1297-1303.
Sousa, A. C., Neiva, H., Gil, M. H., Izquierdo, M., Rodríguez-Rosell, D., Marques, M. C., & Marinho, D. (2019). Concurrent training and detraining: The influence of different aerobic intensities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.