Are Running Breaks Harmful?

My recent experience while taking a brief break from running left me pondering a question: Can taking a break from running be harmful?

It all started weeks ago when I felt pain in my lower left leg and also in my right knee. At first, I tried not to worry about it and continued with my running routine. When the pain returned, my level of concern increased. I had flashbacks to last summer when I experienced pain in the same areas. At that time, I made the mistake of ignoring it and injured myself further. I wrote about that hard-learned lesson and the race I almost missed out on because of my foolishness.

This time, I would not make the same mistake. Since the start date for my marathon training was just a few weeks away, I wanted my legs to be healthy and strong, not injured. I took a few days off to rest. Then, I decided to take a two-week break from running. I would still walk, use a stationary bike, and do strength training; I just wouldn’t run. It seemed like a logical plan.

After a few days into my break, I noticed my overall energy level had dropped and my mood was low. My level of anxiety increased and daily obstacles became mini crises. Anything even the slightest bit stressful was suddenly difficult to handle. Stress-induced eating became a regular part of each day.

By far, the worst part of my break was the change that occurred with my sleeping habits. Aside from an occasional poor night’s sleep, I usually sleep well. I go to bed at the same time and get up at roughly the same time every day. Suddenly, I had trouble sleeping. Both falling asleep and staying asleep became challenging. I awoke each day frustrated.

What was going on? I was still exercising, just not running. Could my body be protesting my running break? Was I doing more harm than good?

So, I did some digging for medical research and what I found backed up what I was experiencing. One study suggests that ceasing regular exercise increases depressive symptoms. Increases were reported in as little as three days. This is not good, especially for someone like me with a history of depression.

Research also suggests that sleep disturbance is the most prominent symptom in depressive patients. It’s possible that my depressive symptoms and reduced cardiovascular activity were both contributing to my poor sleep.

As for my increased anxiety, there is research that suggests that exercise is associated with reduced levels of anxiety. Could a decrease in exercise cause an increase in anxiety? This seemed true for me. Since anxiety can also cause sleeping problems, this too may have been adding to my sleep issues.

My body was definitely trying to tell me something. It was reacting to the disruption in my routine and sending me signals. How should I respond?

Since my legs were feeling better and the two-week break was a somewhat arbitrary decision, I ended the break prematurely with a short run. After the run, I felt better emotionally, my legs felt fine, and I predicted that I would sleep well that night. Sadly, my prediction was not accurate. Although I slept better than I had in days, it took several more days before I returned to sleeping well.

Each day since ending the break, I have felt better than the day before. I have begun marathon training and am trying to be vigilant about strength and mobility work to support my body.

Was my running break actually harmful? Let just say, I’m glad that I ended it early. I think it was becoming harmful to my emotional health and the lack of sleep may have been compromising my immune system.

Sometimes it’s necessary to take a running break, like when you are injured. I was not injured; I was fearful of becoming injured because I was experiencing some pain. A day or two off was probably what I needed.

If you have an injury and need to take a break, just know that your body may react in unexpected ways. It will take time to adjust to the disruption in your routine. Take measures to protect your mental health and support your sleep. That way, you will come off the break feeling refreshed, not harmed, and ready to run again.