Running physiology in its most simple terms is stress + rest = improvement. Make no mistake that to be your best there must be a great amount of stress in the form of training quality and volume. However, without the correct balance of rest your body cannot adapt to your work and at best you stop improving and at worst end up physically injured or mentally fried.
Most of your training week will be resting and recovering. What constitutes rest will vary from runner to runner. For many, a day off or an easy 3-4 miles will be an ideal recovery day. On the elite level a low intensity 8-12 miles in the morning and another easy 4-6 miles in the evening for a 12-18 mile day will do the same thing. Knowing how much recovery you need to get full training benefit from previous work and to be ready for the next hard session or race is very important to know.
Let’s talk about longer periods of rest that you should consider once or twice a year. Running is a sport of passion and enthusiasm and without these in abundance running is simply no fun. A planned break of a week or two once or twice a year can safeguard against physical breakdown but perhaps more importantly allow for emotional and mental recovery and rejuvenation. Much like the daily recovery ranging from a complete day off to an easy 18 miles these breaks may look a great deal different from person to person.
When planning your break identify how much of your running is for racing preparation, exercise, and mental refreshment from daily life. Your break may still include some light running to maintain some level of exercise and the mental break from real life you need. But by getting away from looking at it as training for a little while you will be ready to go back to work after the break.
While the specifics should vary for runners at different levels and psychological make ups, here is a recommendation for your annual or semiannual break.
Week One: Very little to no running. Possibly include some light cross-training for exercise and not to replace your run training. Take most days completely off.
Week Two: Some light running but nothing you would consider “training”.
Week Three: Mostly relaxed running bringing your mileage back up to the low end of your normal range.
Week Four: Add some quality and get back to business.
You don’t think you need a break? You may be right, but I encourage you to look at this perspective. When you run a hard workout most would agree the next day should be easy. It is not that you could not have run harder or longer but you keep it easy to recover and get the training benefit from the previous day’s work, but also to be ready for what is to come. The same is true for the planned break. You may not need it in May, but we want you to be ready for the long buildup to your most important race in the fall. If that is 18-26 weeks away you may benefit from a break somewhere and now is the ideal time, not when you are building training momentum close to the end of the year goal.
How do you know if you need a break? This is a good time to evaluate your history. Do you find during long training periods your enthusiasm for the daily work and the big goal wanes and it begins to feel like a job and you just want to be done with the race? Do you find you tend to drag little aches and pains around that inhibit consistent healthy training? Are there people or things that have not gotten the time and attention they deserve? If so, a break to reset mentally, get completely healthy, and to reestablish life balance is a really good idea.