The benefits of taking short rest intervals from cognitive tasks is well researched. For example, short work breaks every 40-60 minutes is well known to optimise productivity.
In all aspects of our life we balance between components of work and rest. Our running training operates on work to rest intervals. Strength classes, HIIT workouts, tabata training, track sessions, etc. In fact, our actual existence is no different – we’re awake, then we sleep. If we don’t sleep enough our functions falter. So it’s no surprise that we value taking prolonged breaks from work/school/Uni/life.
Research exists on taking holidays (vacations) suggesting both shorter breaks of 4-10 days, or longer holidays of 2-6 weeks have restorative benefits on work performance and cognitive functions. That’s why the majority of sports professionals have lengthy end-of-season breaks; they need to reset.
If you work, or have any full time responsibilities (paid or unpaid) and also regularly exercise, you are a recreational athlete. Most of us juggle multiple demands on our time, with the ability to train sitting on a knife edge. Our release from ‘work’ is our training. Our time at the gym, on the track, in the hills, wherever, is the healthy break from the demands of the ‘rest of life’ stuff. But training is the thing that usually gets compromised the most. And the pressure of squeezing in a run can be a huge mental demand as well as a physical stimulus.
Over the years, we’ve heard a lot of people suggest they will train harder because they’re “on holiday from work” (yes, we have done it). Whilst time and individual capacity to train may be increased without the tough mental and/or physical demands of our jobs, it is worth considering the wider picture. We also realise that for many ‘the holidays’ is quite the opposite and that precious training time is no longer available leading to an ‘enforced’ training break.
The effects of physical activities, social activities and passive activities while on holiday have been examined, with only passive activities (e.g., relaxing and doing nothing) found to be positively related to health and well-being. So should we always do nothing? Of course not. We have to assess our own situations.
Research tells us that when we are in need of a break from one area, simply filling your newfound time with another passion isn’t always going to work out. From a training load standpoint, taking time off work to significantly increase your training load, will induce a spike in training load. You should know by now that a spike in training load will increase your risk of illness and injury.
Are you giving yourself a physical or a mental break, or both? Take a step back and consider the implications of the type of break you’re planning. What you do with your time will vary, and the ‘break’ you take will always be best managed by you. And if you just can’t find the time to physically train planning to maximise the benefit of your enforced break can be very effective.
Is walking in the mountains a good physical break from running 50 miles per week? Is an activity-packed weekend in London a good cognitive break from work? Maybe, but probably not. Once you take the time to consider the things you do whilst ‘taking a break’, in a non-judgmental way, you can start to explore what kind of detachment may serve you best. Do you need a mental break, a physical break, or both?
If you’ve had a really hard period of work switching off with some long days in the hills may give you just the kind of mental reset you need. Equally, for us a good long run in the hills always works as a mental break; and the mental health benefits of exercise are becoming more widely recognised. However, if you are mentally and physically fatigued – normally recognisable to us as those days/weeks where we absolutely do not want to go out and train – then a total, feet up, do nothing break may be the reset you need.
How we cope with our regular life demands, combined with the things we enjoy, will change what taking a break really entails. And don’t forget who you spend that time with will also influence the level of benefit you derive(!)
I love walking, and I love being out in the hills. Before tackling the Spine I spent a week walking Hadrian’s Wall with my wife and friends. It was a mental training break. A step out of a training cycle that was starting to dominate everything, not just for me but my partner as well. But tackling Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t a physical break, in fact it was a deliberate period of specific physical training. At the end of those 6 days I was mentally refreshed, I’d had a great time with great company, I had reset and was ready to push to achieve my Ultra Goal. And I’d worked on my hiking strength.
Oh, and when I finished the event? I took a total physical training break – I didn’t run another step for 10 days (mostly because I couldn’t)!
When you are thinking about ‘taking a break’ or when you have your time off work, take some time to read yourself and consider what type of break you need, and how best to achieve it. Couch potato, full-time athlete, or somewhere in between!? A break is also a great time to make minor lifestyle changes that will suport your training. Build some new ‘Tiny Habits’ – those little things you’ve wanted to change or add to your daily routine; drinking more water, a 5 minute core workout every day, getting to bed earlier…whatever, try it now.
Returning to physical training can be hard after a break, and the longer you leave it the worse it gets. We’ve all been there, “I’ll start tomorrow, next week…” Planning your return from a physical break is just as important as the break itself. And it’s not just about getting ‘back on the horse’; after a break you’ll need to ease yourself back in. Don’t jump back in where you left off, or worse go even harder because you feel good. Hard as it is when you feel fresh use this time to build properly; don’t forget a spike in load increases your chances of injury or illness. So focus on enjoying being back, recognise that feeling of ‘freshness’, and concentrate on getting back into the training ‘groove’.
A break from something we spend a long time doing is beneficial for restoring mental capacity and cognitive performance.
Our own make-up and history will influence the type of training break that we need and will benefit from the most.
Consciously decide what you are taking a break from, and recharge the batteries for whichever components need it the most.