Absence makes the heart (or whole body) grow stronger

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I’m on day 8 of my 10 day sabbatical from running.  By day 3, I already felt anxious about not lacing up my shoes and heading out to feel the wind in my face, never mind the fact that I was still exhausted and sore from the previous week’s races.  The logical, realistic part of my brain knows I need this break both mentally and physically to stay healthy and motivated to gear up for my next training cycle, but at the same time, I’m stressin’.  Running is my happy place.  The sound of my footsteps on the trail and the earthy smell of the trees is peaceful. I run because it makes me feel good – strong, brave, beautiful, confident, and calm.  I also run so I can be a good mom to my guys.  Running provides me both the energy to keep up with them and the tranquility I need to make good parenting decisions - you know, like reminding myself that I'm the adult.  AND, I TRI because there's nothing like the feeling of succeeding at something that feels impossible.  Taking a break from all this goodness does not come naturally.

I’m not the only one who has a hard time with a recovery break.  I hear it from ALL my endurance clients:  “What will I do on my off time?”  “I’m going to gain weight!”  “This is my only time to myself.”  “I’m going to get so out of shape and my next race is really not that far away.”  “When I don’t run/ride/swim, I stay up too late and eat extra cookies.”  Yes, I’ve heard it all.  So today, I write this for all of us.  WE ALL NEED A BREAK SOMETIMES to be the best athlete, partner, parent, employee, we can be.  If you’re not an endurance athlete, feel free to sub in “working,” “parenting,” etc. for the “training” mentioned below.  Absence makes the heart (or whole body) grow stronger. 🙂

Here are 5 common hang ups with taking time off and how to manage them:

  1. Training is a habit.

    We’ve deeply engraved training as part of our routine and daily ritual.  Breaking habits are hard.  Remember when you first started exercising?  Taking recovery time means we’re asking ourselves to temporarily break a habit, and not just any habit – a habit that makes us chemically feel good. Your brain spends energy trying to figure out what you’ll do with your extra time and freaks out because you’re missing the activity that gives you a natural high.  Make it easier by first dividing fact from feelings.  Hard training sessions may make you feel good but the fact is your body needs a break.  Then, plan your “time off.”  Take advantage of what the season has to offer.  Time off in the fall? What better time to enjoy your local parks? During my sabbatical from running, I’m walking my dog, hiking, and practicing more yoga which also provides me with that happy chemical release.

  2. We hear “don’t exercise” when the words spoken are “take some time off.”  

    After a rigorous training plan, rather than hear “take some time off running,” we default to “don’t exercise.” That’s NOT what we, your trainer/coach, are saying.  What we are saying is to take some time off what you’d call “training.”  Do other things, you know, like VACATION.  Do the workouts your wish you had more time for, try something new, or turn your focus to an area you could improve – like strength or mobility training.  The whole “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is very true for endurance athletes.  Taking time off running, if running is your chi, only makes you want to run more.  When you come back, you’ll renew your vows and head back into your next training cycle refreshed and ready to tackle your next race with ambition.

  3. Training is a catalyst for healthy decisions.  

    Our brain links habits like dominos, one setting off the next, to decrease the amount of time and energy needed to make decisions.  Consider your commute to work.  You may remember leaving your driveway, but somehow you magically made it to your desk, coffee in hand, without Siri’s help.  Then, on your way to work, construction re-routes you and suddenly you’re thrown off.  You get to your desk only to realize you’ve left your morning brew in your car. Training is often a catalyst for nutrition choices – because you have to eat well to train well, which means when you're not following your training schedule, your nutrition choices are not so regimented.

    How do you get around making unhealthy decisions when you're not "training?"  Refer to #2 – just because you’re taking time off training, doesn’t mean you’re taking time off exercise.  Make those healthy choices to feel good during your workouts and throughout your day.  At the same time, be ok with letting yourself be more “at ease” nutritionally.  Just like taking time off from training makes you yearn for your next run, making a few not-so-healthy choices will make you crave nutritious food.  I feel better when I eat better, so when I’ve had a festivous weekend or spent the morning eating sugar/carbs during a long run or ride, there’s nothing I crave more than a beautiful, rainbow colored salad.  The key is to avoid making regular unhealthy choices your new habit by getting back to your nutritious choices ASAP.  This applies to sleep as well!  Netflix can wait. 😉

  4. Training is therapy.  

    Oh, I feel you.  Running is my meditation.  Running is my me-time.  Running is the place where it’s just me and the road.  When I feel good, I run fast.  When I’m upset, I run fast.  When I’m at ease, I enjoy the scenery.  When I’m tired during a training block, running challenges my mental and physical endurance and makes me feel strong.  When I skip my therapy sesh, oh man!  This might be you if your partner literally hands you your running shoes and says “please go.”  While you’re on sabbatical, you should still “go.”  The “go” just happens to be different.  My alternatives: walking, lifting weights to loud music, or hiking with my pup.  What do you do for your mental health, when your #1 go-to is not an option?

  5. Training keeps me fit.  

    Yes, it does, but OVERTRAINING, does not.  To get stronger, you must incorporate recovery time into your training plan.  Consider that in addition to weekly recovery workouts, many training plans use a 2:1 or 3:1 approach, meaning 2-3 weeks hard, 1 week recovery.  During that recovery week, you don’t lose fitness.  Instead, you gain it which sets you up for success for your 3 hour ride or 10 mile run.  When you take time off, you’re helping prevent overtraining – a.k.a. overuse injuries, burn out, and even worse, adrenal fatigue.  Yes, you will lose some running, swimming, or cycling fitness in a 10 day to 2 month sabbatical. However, this time will allow your muscle, joints, and brain recover so when you begin your next training season, you'll feel refreshed and motivated to push to the next level.  Powering through your off season is like doing intervals during your recovery run - not productive or beneficial.  The best athletes have a well balanced mix of hard efforts and recovery.  Don't miss out on yours!

Getting ready to move into the off season or taking a short sabbatical from one discipline?  Ease your off-season jitters by pre-planning.

  • Schedule workouts or physical activity during your normal training time.
  • Pre-decide how you will handle nutrition and sleep and what you’ll do when you’ve over-indulged.
  • Reflect on how you relax and give yourself a few alternate outlets to help manage stress and your mental health.
  • Use your recovery time to reflect on your last season.  What did you learn from this year?  What worked? What didn't?  Use these answers + the extra rest to fuel your next training season.

How do you plan to spend your off-season?

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About Author

Amanda Pack

Recreation and Fitness Program Coordinator

Amanda received her Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Passionate about health and fitness, Amanda worked in the fitness and wellness industry for 6 years prior to joining the Recreation and Fitness Center team in 2011. At the RFC, she enjoys sharing her passion with the SAS Community through personal training, group exercise instruction, teaching yoga, and coaching recreational endurance athletes. A wife, working mother, triathlete, and yogini herself, wellness is an important theme in both her personal and professional life. Amanda is registered through Yoga Alliance as a 200 hour Yoga Teacher (RYT200), certified in personal training and group exercise instruction through the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), and is an IRONMAN Certified Coach.

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