Here’s how taking time off affects your fitness, plus how to get back into running when you’re ready.
Many runners feel guilty about taking time off. But in reality, it can seriously benefit your body and mind. If you just crushed a marathon or your schedule is about to get hectic as you balance work obligations with personal commitments and all the holiday happenings, you might want to consider hanging up your sneakers for a bit.
Even the elites stop running for awhile. Case in point: Des Linden—former Boston Marathon champion, Olympian, and all-around awesome human—previously posted on X (formally known as Twitter) that she hadn’t run a step for a full month. When a well-intentioned commenter asked what she’d been doing in the meantime, she responded (with the typical Des wittiness): “Growing a sofa on my ass.”
Linden may have been nonchalant about her time off, but for a lot of us, a month feels like a long time. What will happen to your Strava stats? How will this affect your training status on your smartwatch? Forget the metrics—will you even be able to run again after all that time off?
The short answer: Yes, even if you lose a little fitness.
Here’s what happens when you stop running for a month and how it’ll affect your performance—and help it.
What happens to your fitness when stop running for a month?
After just a few weeks of little to no exercise, your heart starts to show significant signs of detraining, according to a 2018 study on marathoners published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
But a month isn’t that long and if you were running regularly before, you can bounce back fast. “If you take a month off, it will take you about a month to get back to where you were,” says Polly de Mille, R.N., C.S.C.S., exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Think about it this way: You get a month to ride out this year, and another month to ease back into exercise at the start of a new one. Sounds pretty nice, right?
For most people, though, taking a month off of running doesn’t mean melting into your couch. And if you keep active in ways beyond running, you can still keep your fitness up. “Most of the research shows that three sessions a week at at least 70 percent of your VO2 max—whether that’s swimming or biking or an online class—is going to do a pretty good job of maintaining your aerobic conditioning,” says de Mille.
While aerobic fitness starts to decline in seven to 14 days, muscle loss typically starts to occur in as little as three days, says Krishna Curry, outreach and marketing manager for Girls on the Run San Diego and contributing coach at RUNGRL.
“What’s important to consider is what your training looked like before you took a break,” she says. “If you’ve been training intensely over the past several weeks, you’ve put a lot into your tank so it’s not going to be as fast a decline as somebody who wasn’t that consistent with their running or who was a lot weaker to start with. And you’re going to adapt a lot faster when you come back to training.”
What benefits can you gain from taking a month off from running?
That month off could actually be a good thing. Remember, training is a stressor, and your body can only handle so much stress at once.
If you’re already stressed about wrapping up work before the end of the year, or say, you’re planning a big event like a wedding or family reunion, layering that stress with high-intensity training (i.e. running), can put you on a road to overtraining and burnout.
“At this point, we’re not recovering the way we used to,” says de Mille. “There’s only so much we can take.” So if a break from running is what you need, that’s self-care.
Plus, a break is an opportunity to set new goals. When you’re following a training plan, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for things you know you should be doing. Forget about kilometerage , and use a break to develop other areas of strength that you normally don’t have as much time to focus on because you’re racking up double-digit kilometre, says Curry.
“You can build your strength, do core work, zero in on mobility—things that will make running easier when you do get back it,” she says. You may not be running, but you’re shoring up all the weak links.
“Now’s the time to address any compensations or imbalances you’ve been coping with so you can rebuild yourself properly,” Curry adds.
How do you ease back into running after a month off?
When you are ready to get back to running, ease into it. “Don’t assume that it’s like tapering for a race and when you come back, you’re going to be even more fit,” says de Mille.
You especially need to be respectful of the orthopedic stress of running. “There’s nothing quite like the impact that you experience when you’re running, so if your tendons and muscles haven’t experienced that sort of eccentric stress in a while, your cardiovascular system may be way ahead of your musculoskeletal system in terms of readiness to go long or work hard.”
Sure, you’ll probably be excited to get back to it. But don’t feel like you need to make up for lost time. “It’s really important that people map out their plan beforehand so they can stay consistent,” says Curry.
Look back at the weekly volume you were maintaining before your break and pick the bare minimum—a healthy volume of running that you can maintain without inciting any injury, she says. Then, Curry typically starts by adding one to three kilometres per week.
As the volume increases relative to your starting point, those weekly increases get smaller. Just make sure to “lower your expectations for what you’re going to do when you go back,” says de Mille. “Be patient with yourself and listen to your body.”