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What if I miss a run or workout?

Training rarely ever goes 100% according to plan. If you miss run or workout because you're sick, busy at home/work or needed to take a precauitonary day off, here's what to do.

What not to do when you miss training

While sometimes there is nothing you can do about having to miss a few days of training, there are principles you can follow, both during your actual missed training time and the build-up after, to return to training as quickly as possible.

Don’t try to make up for lost training

The number one rule you should follow when adjusting your training for missed days is: do not try to make up missed workouts or mileage. That means no squeezing workouts closer together and no adding miles to your warm-up, cool down, or easy days. This is the quickest and surest route to injury and overtraining.

In a well-designed training schedule, each workout has a calculated amount of necessary recovery time. Meaning, whoever designed the schedule has anticipated, either by experience or via physiological principles, exactly how long it will take you to recover from that session. If you squeeze workouts together, you reduce this recovery time and begin your next workout while your muscles are still repairing from the previous workout. This creates a viscous cycle and usually leads to overtraining.

Likewise, adding on mileage for the sake of hitting weekly mileage totals defeats the purpose of that run. For example, a warm-up is designed to get your muscles prepared for the hard workout ahead, not to build aerobic endurance. Adding on mileage is simply junk miles that do nothing to advance your fitness. On the same note, recovery runs are designed to aid in recuperation by speeding blood, oxygen, and nutrients to broken down muscle fibers. Running longer doesn’t aid in this process and more likely inhibits proper recovery.

Don’t worry about losing fitness

Most runners understand the above principles, so why do we freak out when we miss a few days of training? Unfortunately, runners have an irrational fear that missing a few runs will ruin all the hard work they’ve put in over the previous months.

Luckily, I’ve got great news for you. While obviously you’re not going to be gaining any fitness during your time off, you won’t lose that much either. Most studies show that you’ll experience a negligible reduction in fitness after taking as many as seven days off. Even if you need to stop running for ten to fourteen days, the amount of fitness you lose is insignificant – as little as 3-4%. Here’s some of the data.

So, don’t fret if you’re forced to take time off for sickness, injuries or travel. You’re not becoming as detrained as you might fear, and with a few quick and easy workouts, you’ll be right back where you left off.

Don’t let missing training get you down

Some runners find it difficult to rebound after missing a few days. They get off their routine, lose momentum and struggle to get started again. However, as you now know, it takes more than a few days away from running to lose significant fitness, so you shouldn’t let a few missed days ruin the rest of your schedule.

First, use the time off to work on aspects of training outside running. If you’re injured, work on your core, hamstrings, hips, lower legs (only if those exercises don’t bother your injury). Instead of “losing” time to an injury, you can be hardening your body for better, healthier training in the future.

Keep eating healthy. Whether you’re sick or just missing time do to work, family or travel commitments, you can use foods to your advantage. Some foods can aid in the healing process of injuries and while getting sick and avoiding bad calories can make it easier to return to training. When you’re not running, be extra diligent about the foods you eat.

How to get back on track

If missed training time is one to five days

If you miss less than five days of training, it’s safe to assume you didn’t lose any fitness and your legs will respond to jumping back into training very quickly. You don’t want your first run back to be a hard workout, so schedule two or three easy days of running. I suggest 80-90 percent of your normal easy run distance. Include some strides or explosive hill sprints stimulate the central nervous system and get the legs ready for harder running. After two or three easy runs, you should be good to jump back into harder workouts without needing to adjust your training paces.

If missed training time is six to ten days

If you miss between six and ten days of training, you’ll likely lose a little running specific coordination and a very slight amount of fitness. This isn’t anything to fret over, but it does mean you’ll want to schedule your first workout back to be pretty easy.

After this introductory workout, you should be all set to jump back into your regular training mileage and intensities.

If missed training time is ten to fifteen days

At this point, you’ve missed a decent amount of training and it’s going to take you a couple of weeks to feel back to normal and be ready to train at your previous intensity and volumes.

After these two introductory workouts, you should be all set to jump back into your regular training mileage and intensities.

Should you make-up missed workouts or jump back on schedule

The final question relates to how you get back on schedule. Should you go back and re-do the workouts you missed or continue on your schedule, skipping the workouts you weren’t able to run? Again, this is a variable and individual situation, but here’s what I suggest:

If you’re in the final eight to ten weeks before your goal race, go back and perform the workouts you missed.

Typically, this last portion of the training is what coaches call the “race specific phase”, where each workout becomes more and more specific to the demands of your goal race. Generally, each workout builds on itself. Meaning, one week you might have 12 x 400 at 5k pace and the next you’ll have 8 x 600 at 5k pace, followed by 6 x 800 the third week. The schedule assumes you’ve done 12 x 400 and are ready to take the next step and increase the distance. If you just jump into 6 x 800, it’s likely your body isn’t ready. Not only does this increase your chance of injury, but it’s probable you won’t be able to hit the workout and thus won’t get optimal training benefits.

If you’re more than 8 weeks away from your race date, you can jump back into your schedule and skip the workouts you missed.

At this point, you’re in what most coaches call the “general phase”. Typically, you’ve already adjusted to the workout and volume distance and you’re putting in the general prep work to maximize your overall fitness or to work on particular weaknesses, such as speed or endurance. As such, you should be able to jump back into training without making up for missed workouts since your paces and volumes will roughly be the same of the course of a few weeks.

Missing training is never optimal and it’s always difficult to find the perfect way to get back on track. However, use these guiding principles the next time you have to take a few days off and you’ll be able to slide back into training without missing a beat.