Maintaining fitness during running downtime

Dealing with an enforced break from running

No matter how committed you are to your running, there will be occasions, usually out of your control, when you are not able to run. Injury, illness, work or family commitments can all prevent you from being able to run, but there are alternatives to keep you on track during this running downtime. Here's the guide to coping with a break in your running routine.

Maintaining fitness during running downtime


For a runner, being unable to run can be frustrating, especially when you have a race to train for. It's quite likely, at some point in your running career, that an unplanned break in your training schedule will occur. The key for you and your fitness levels is to manage the downtime effectively so that your fitness loss is minimal.

Why are you unable to run?

If you have suffered an injury or become ill and have to miss some key sessions, you may be fearful that your running-specific fitness may drop. However, irrespective of whether you’re sidelined for a day or a year, you can use the extra free time to assess the reasons for your injury or illness.

Consult the table below which summarises the most common reasons for training downtime together with suggested solutions to help you start planning for your return to training. 

Reason for
Overtraining Injury, fatigue, illness Downtime will actually improve your performance in the long-term. Reduce your mileage and training volume, building up steadily.
Too many fast
Injury Too many fast sessions will mean your best running is done on the training ground and not in your race. Quality sessions should be limited to two or three per week, with much easier runs on alternate days around these.
Insufficient number of easy days Injury, fatigue Rest is the most important component of your training program. Include rest days in your schedule. They are a must.
Change of running surface Injury Surface variety is welcome, but you can become injured if you do too much too soon on a new surface. Introduce any changes in running surface gradually to allow your body to adapt.
Other training Injury Incorrectly performed exercises or other sports can lead to injury if you are unconditioned for the new discipline. Seek professional advice and start new activities carefully.
Shoe problems Injury Rotate your trainers and checking cushioning levels, and this will reduce your chances of injury . Visit a specialist retailer, who will be able to offer unbiased advice on the correct model for you.
Over-racing Injury, fatigue,
Racing stresses the body far more than training does, so minimize your racing. Allow yourself time off after races to allow proper recovery.
Inflexibility Injury Poor flexibility is one of the most common causes of injury. Build a regular program of flexibility exercises into your schedule.
Illness N/A If you become ill, you could just be unlucky — or you may have been doing too much training, which can suppress your immune system. Recuperate, recover and return gradually.
Other commitments N/A These are occasionally unavoidable. Running should be in balance with the other parts of your life. Devise a plan that will enable you to fit in your running once the other commitments reduce.

During and after your running lay-off

Once you’ve identified the reason(s) for your inability to run, you can start to consider how you might return to running. If you are suffering from an illness then you should not start running until you are fully recovered. However, if you are injured or your training time is limited, then there may be ways in which you can maintain your fitness by employing a downtime training strategy. If you are ill, have an injury, or have a limited amount of time, here's what you can do:

Reason for
Downtime training strategy
Illness 1. Completely recover from your illness before considering any training.
2. Graduate your return to training (see the ‘Downtime duration’ table later on).
Injury 1. Ensure your injury is assessed by a doctor or specialist.
2. Use complementary training (for example swimming, cycling, flexibility work or resistance training) to supplement and maintain your fitness.
Time constraints 1. Assess your commitments and free time.
2. Try to set aside training time specifically for you, even if it is significantly reduced compared to your usual training volume.
3. Plan for your return to full training.

Running training alternatives

When you're a runner, the idea of alternative training may not have crossed your mind, until you reach a point where you are unable to run. Maintaining your cardiovascular (CV) fitness has to be your priority. Provided you are not suffering an illness, then CV exercise will help you to maintain your condition. Activities like rowing, swimming, and cycling and all excellent form of CV exercise.

If circumstances where an injury prevents you from doing many activities, then 'wet-vesting' is an excellent opportunity. This involves running in a deep-water swimming pool wearing a 'wet-vest' — a mini life jacket that enables you to remain upright in the water. The bouyancy allows you to mimic the running action with out putting undue strain on the body — a great CV workout! Favoured by Double Olympic Champion Kelly Holmes when she was recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, the wet-vest permits high-quality sessions without impact or other problems.

Further training alternatives

It’s possible during your absence from running that you won’t be able to do any CV training at all. For example, a leg injury might temporarily prevent any use of your lower body. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to give training of any kind a miss. There are other forms of training that will contribute to your overall fitness levels.

Try some of the following:

  • Resistance training. Improving your overall strength and condition via resistance training, such as weights, will make you a better runner.
  • Core training. Time spent on core training will improve your posture and body control, together with improvements in your running economy.
  • Flexibility training. Keeping yourself loose and supple will help you to stay injury free and improve your range of motion.
  • Mental training. More free time can be used productively to improve your mental focus and visualisation techniques, which you can employ when you are back to full fitness and running again.
  • Relaxation. The opportunity to relax will both invigorate you and rekindle your enthusiasm for running once you are able to resume training.

You can resume training when you are fully recovered from your injury or illness. Make sure you follow the advice of your doctor or sports therapist. However, the table below lets you know in general how soon you can resume training:

Downtime duration
Return to training strategy
1-2 days None Resume exactly where you left off.
1 week Minimal to no fitness losses 1. Use your first couple of runs to find your feet by running easily.
2. Resume normal training as soon as you feel ready.
2 weeks Small fitness losses 1. Week 1: Easy training runs only.
2. Week 2: Resume normal training as soon as you feel ready.
1 month Noticeable fitness losses 1. Week 1: Light training with reduced volume.
2. Week 2: Steady running only, no intense or long sessions.
3. Week 3: Repeat Week 2 with slightly longer runs.
4. Week 4 onwards: Gradually re-introduce your previous training volume and intensity.
1-2 months Significant fitness losses 1. Weeks 1 and 2: Light jogging only.
2. Weeks 3 and 4: Easy running if ready, no intense or long sessions.
3. Weeks 5 and 6: Steady running at a comfortable pace.
4. Week 7 onwards: Gradually re-introduce your previous training volume and intensity.
More than 2 months High fitness losses 1. Assume that you are starting your training from scratch.
2. Begin with a program of light jogging.
3. Build distance and training volume carefully, ignoring quality and intense sessions.
4. Only introduce faster-paced running once you have established a solid base of at least two months steady training.

Although an enforced break in your running training may be frustrating, if you follow the APART acronym you will return to running earlier. APART is your five-stage ‘back into training’ system:

  • Assess the problem.
  • Plan for your rehabilitation.
  • Alternative training.
  • Resume running.
  • Train normally.

Remember: every runner experiences downtime at some point. If you can’t run for a while, don't readily give up on all forms of fitness. Put all your efforts into trying to maintain some form of fitness and you'll be back to running at your normal training intensity quicker than you might have thought possible.

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