A year before Ed Whitlock died at 86, he was the oldest person to run a marathon in less than 4 hours. The feat was one of many records Whitlock set. Runners and scientists alike have tried to understand what made Whitlock stand out from the pack.
There are many things Whitlock did differently. But the one runners might appreciate most is how often he took breaks from running. And how long those breaks were. He’d take as much as a year off at a time to rest different parts of his body.
WHAT HAPPENED TO DOWNTIME?
The notion of taking that much time off makes most runners cringe. “Running is such an addictive sport, and it can quickly become part of your identity,” says Flagstaff-based running coach Greg McMillan of McMillan Running. Running becomes who you are and what you do, and taking time away is often unthinkable.
“But what happens is that people go-go-go until they break or get burned out and then rest is forced upon them,” McMillan says. It doesn’t help that races are available year-round, to the point where there is no real “running season” anymore, You can do a half-marathon every weekend if you want, and most running groups go year-round. He’s worked with many runners who struggle with this and often talks about the importance of rest.
The best approach, he says, is to be like Ed: Take time off of your own volition — and be strategic about it.
THE BENEFITS OF TAKING A BREAK FROM RUNNING
“Start to think about inserting seasonality to your training,” McMillan says. There are several reasons to do this.
First, taking a break makes you stronger and gives your body a chance to rebuild. “That’s what helps with longevity,” McMillan says.
Second, a running break of a few weeks — or even (shock!) a month — is a chance to reset. “It gives you time to think about what aspects of your fitness you want to focus on next, such as stamina, endurance or speed. That way, when you come back, you can be a different animal,” McMillan says.
Third, a running break helps you feel more in harmony with your life, and offers a chance to give back to those who have supported you. Take the time to volunteer at races, or just to be with your family (who might actually like to spend Saturday morning with you for a change). Or, plan your break according to a busy season with work, so you don’t feel guilty missing runs.
WHAT IF I LOSE FITNESS?
You will lose fitness, McMillan says. But … so what? You will gain it back — even stronger than before. “With short breaks, you only lose race sharpness, which is just the icing on the cake. You don’t lose the whole cake,” McMillan says. You may even gain a few pounds. This isn’t failure or moving backward! This is your body’s natural cycle.
HOW DO I KNOW WHEN IT’S TIME TO GO BACK?
“My best advice is don’t come back until you are really itching to come back! Don’t just come back because you feel like you should or because you are gaining weight or because your running group is training,” McMillan says. Don’t let worry or guilt be your motivator for ending your mini-hiatus.
Rather, return to running because you are so rested, so ready and so pumped up to hit the trail or the pavement again. “When your aches and pains are gone and you can get up or bend down without hurting, it’s the perfect time,” he says.
And remember, every time Ed Whitlock took time off, he came back stronger — even into his 80s. If all else fails, be like Ed.