Our bodies do not have infinite energy or sustaining power. When our bodies are overworked – or our minds are overworked – we either give them a break or they will force us to take one. Everyone has different thresholds which are dependent both on genetics as well as learned and conditioned behaviors. When our minds (mental or emotional components) become overloaded, we suffer from a multitude of symptoms that everyone calls “stress”. When our bodies have been overworked, they break down. Our immune system weakens and we are more susceptible to illnesses. We also become more prone to injuries.
So, how do you know when it is time to take a break? There are both mental/emotional elements as well as physical components to consider.
Answer these questions on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being extremely good and 5 being very poor. Here are a set of questions to consider:
1. How well are you sleeping?
2. How good is your tolerance for problems, issues or confrontations that arise compared to normal?
3. How optimistic are you about things?
4. How well can you focus on things that need to get done in your life?
5. How well are you coping with disappointment, loss?
6. How vigorous and energetic do you feel?
7. How confident or doubtful are you about reaching your goals?
8. How achey or sore do you feel?
9. How tight are your muscles feeling?
10. How well are you recovering from an injury?
11. Do you find yourself more clumsy, dropping things, or less attentive while driving?
You are looking for a change in your physical and mental condition. You need to discern your normal disposition with a change. If you are normally a little sore after a hard workout the day before, it would be natural. If you feel disappointment about a bad race or not getting a promotion at work, it is understandable. If you are normally intolerable of problems, issues or confrontation – it is not necessarily an issue of over-doing things. It may be your nature. If you want to get objective input, ask your coach to go over these with you.
Answering these questions with candid insight will lead you to the answer to the issue in question – do you need to back-off? Some of the items are objective. The scale is subjective. But, that in and of itself is telling. Subjectivity means from your perspective. If your perspective seems clouded or negative, then that alone can be a sign. At what point do you need to consider time off? If you have a deviation from your “normal” of 2 points or more (i.e. from a score of 2 to a score of 4) in three to four categories you may need some time off.
What happens if you don’t listen to your body (and mind)? Breakdown is inevitable. That breakdown can be emotional or physical. When we don’t listen to our bodies, it will scream louder for attention. Will power will only take you so far. And then not even will power can sustain you.
For all athletes the question most commonly on their minds is – what are the effects of time off?
Good research exists on the “de-training” effect of athletes. Consider some research evidence: It requires four weeks for a runner’s legs to return to normalcy after a marathon. (This is cellular level damage the not subjective “I think I feel good enough to run.”) After 15 days of rest there is between 4-8% drop in your ability to maximally process oxygen (VO2max). Blood volume decreases up to 10% after a three week lay-off. After 10 days off it will take up to 30 days of training to recover the muscle enzyme levels critical to performance. Heat acclimation may be lost as well.
On the good side, time off allows for muscle recovery. Remember, training breaks down tissue and it is the rebuilding of the muscles that make us stronger/faster. It also allows for a mental break from intense and consistent training.
So, how much time off is enough?
It is reasonable to expect that a more seasoned runner could take off more time with less effects. If you are going to completely take time off, you might as well do it for a month. Most of your conditioning will be lost within the first two weeks, so why not fully recover with four weeks.
Perhaps a more ideal approach (supported by research) is to do two high intensity workouts per week. Rest the remaining five days in the week. The evidence is strong that very little conditioning will be lost over the four week period and your body and mind should recover perfectly.
A couple ideas for workouts: Get out on paths and trails. Get well warmed up with 10-15 minutes of easy running. Then, go 15 minutes at 5k to 10k pace and then warm down. You can also do Fartlek (Swedish for “speed play”) workouts. Get warmed up with 10 minutes of easy running then “play” with different paces over varying terrain. If you like the track, go do high intensity, short distance repeats (12-16×200 walk 200 recovery; or, 8×400 fast jog 400 recovery). Go from very fast to 5k to 10k to jog alternating in 4-5 minute intervals. Perform high intensity aqua-jogging (pool running) intervals. Even very high intensity non-running workouts (i.e. cycling intervals) can maintain conditioning.
The bottom line is that you need to pay attention to how you are feeling. For short periods of time you can push through. But, “no pain no gain” is antiquated thinking. Over time, pushing through may mean a prolonged forced rest period.