Confession: After running the More/Shape Women's Half-Marathon in April, I took a solid week-plus off running. I wasn't totally inactive—I took a trip to Jacksonville, FL at the end of the week, and snuck in some kayaking, surfing, and yoga there. But I didn't even think about running. Even once I hit the trails again, I stuck to short distances and ran slow. It wasn't even that my legs were so tired; mentally, I was ready for a break. (Even though Running with Women Gives Me the Warm and Fuzzies.)
But when anyone asked me if I'd gone back out there again, I felt a little embarrassed to be like, "Yeah... but only for a two-miler." I'd had these grand schemes of piggy-backing on my increased endurance, keeping up with my long runs and speed work to stay in race-ready shape. Plus, the weather was finally getting warm and sunny—but I was still choosing sleeping in over a morning jog.
So when I asked John Henwood, a coach at the Mile High Run Club who works with running greats like Mary Cain, how long you really need to take off after a race, I was hoping he'd say, "A month, at least!" Not what happened.
"It depends a lot on the level of runner and the distance, of course," he said. "For a marathon, anyone who finished in about three hours and 40 minutes or slower, which is about 75 percent of people, generally needs about a week off." If you're faster than that (you can pat yourself on the back), you need two or three weeks to let your legs recover from the thrashing, he says. (Guess what: Scientists have uncovered the secret to running faster.)
"For a half, it's more like three or four days," he added. Ouch. And a 5K or 10K requires no special treatment at all.
But I wasn't so off the mark coming back slower and shorter than before. "Listen to your body. You might run every second day with some cross-training or strength-training in between for eight to ten days before building back up to where you were before the race. And don't do any speed work for two or maybe three weeks after a marathon, or a week after a half," he cautions.
Come back too fast or too hard, and you risk injury and burnout, Henwood says. "Recovery is a part of training. Your muscles get stronger during the rest, which ultimately lets you progress and get an even better time," he explains. "Screw with your periodization and you won't recover, you'll be sore, and you won't be able to build back up properly."
So even though it's probably well past time for me to lace up and hit the roads hard again, at least I can rest easy knowing that my extended time off may have been at least somewhat helpful. (Check out these post-workout mistakes you don't know you're making.)