Training

Do You Need a Break — Or Just a Change?

How to distinguish between fatigue and boredom, and ideas for restoring your mojo.

When Lorraine Moller, bronze medalist in the 1992 Olympic Marathon, was struggling to maintain a pace in a race, counter-intuitively, she would speed up.

“I was stuck in this negative feedback loop,” Moller says. “To break that loop, I’d run to the front of the pack. As soon as I ran to the front, I felt like I was winning. I created a whole new feedback loop, one in which I felt strong.”

When she focused on fatigue, the default was to slow down. But by shaking things up and increasing the pace, she was able to quite literally shift her view. What she’d been feeling was not fatigue, but monotony. A change of pace — counter-intuitively, faster — revived her.

With races canceled or postponed, many runners have been doing the same workouts, the same training, for six months or more with no definitive end goal in site. Naturally, some are now feeling flat, burned out, and possibly overtrained.

So what’s the solution — a break from running, or just a change? 

Fatigue or Boredom?

Runner snoozing in medow.
Photo: Eilis Garvey / Unsplash

As the president of the Lydiard Foundation, Moller conducts coaching clinics that address issues like this. First off, Moller says, “You have to distinguish between boredom and fatigue. And to do that, you have to really know yourself and your training. One of the challenges runners face today is that knowledge of our bodies has been outsourced to a watch or a computer but those devices can’t tell you the finer points, your inner feelings.”

While boredom may manifest itself in a variety of ways that can look like overtraining/fatigue, symptoms of overtraining are more limited, objective, and persistent. Moller listed poor running form (which can lead to injury), elevated heart rate, and poor sleep as the most common indicators of overtraining. Those symptoms probably point to taking a break from running.

Shutting the whole show down seems to be the default solution when feeling flat, partly because, well, it requires little effort, and is sure-fire — if you’re not running, you’re not feeling tired, dreading going for a run, or posting disappointing times. It’s a good solution to overtraining, but doesn’t necessarily address boredom.

Loss of enthusiasm, lack of improvement, or stressing about having to go for a run, Moller says, might be manifestations of mental and physical boredom. You might feel tired, but in fact, you’re just tired of doing the same thing. A change in training — not necessarily less, but different — might restore your mojo. 

“If you apply the same stimulus for too long, you’re not going to improve,” Moller says. “You’re not overtrained, your body has just gotten used to what you’re doing. You need to change it up, apply a new kind of stimulus.”

Not Less, Just Different

As Moller’s run-to-the-front-of-the-pack strategy demonstrated, change doesn’t necessarily mean reducing the intensity or load, just changing it. For example, if you’ve consistently been putting in 50-mile weeks of the same road workouts, same long run on the weekend, you might try putting those 50 miles into a trail ultra format — done on trails where pace is less relevant than on the roads, with almost all the weekly mileage on back-to-back days

Or, you might up the volume and intensity of a mid-week workout, trying something truly challenging — and more than a little scary — like a combo 5K tempo + 4 x 1K + 4 x 400m.  Then give yourself an extra day or two of rest after to recover, adapt and feel the fresh new strength. 

Erin Block, an Olympic Trials Marathon participant, and Oiselle athlete, is a proponent of counter-intuitive solutions. She’s hit the doldrums in training many times. Her first step, like Moller’s, is to identify the source of the malaise. “You have to be honest with yourself about whether the burned-out feeling is due to something physical, emotional, or pragmatic, like life stuff,” she says. “Sometimes I was just feeling unfit, or scared of certain goals or workouts, so forcing the issue was the best antidote.”

By forcing the issue, she means facing the fear, actually attempting the hard workout, or going for the steep goal. “Common wisdom is, if things aren’t going well, to go gentle on yourself, to expect less of yourself,” Block says. “That didn’t set right with me, so I often went the other way, and it worked for me more often than not. What I was calling ‘burned out’ was actually boredom. When I set a higher standard for myself, rather than a lower one, I felt better, less tired. We tend to see change as less. It could mean more.” 

Block is quick to make a caveat. Her method of treating the ‘blahs’ by cranking things up is an adults-only dose, she says, “because kids, people under 20 even, are usually going full tilt as a matter of course. Suggesting they dial it up would be irresponsible.” 

Expect More, Step Up

Trail runner man training in nature, on a rock.
Photo: Getty Images

Block’s experiences sounded a lot like something Moller says: “Most people train with an expectation way below what they’re capable of.”

Running to the front of the pack, trying a trail block, hammering an intimidating workout, expecting more of yourself — changes like these, in a horizontal or upward direction, require significant physical and mental effort, especially from a state of ennui. And there is risk — you might fail. Challenging, risky… that’s inherently exciting.

“The fact that I was striving, not pulling back, made me feel like I was in the game. It energized me, ” Block says. “Even if I didn’t accomplish the goal, making this counter-intuitive choice to do more rather than less, and then going for it — it shook things up and put me in an entirely different mental place.”

Another positive to changing up your training rather than taking time off, Block says, is that fitness is retained. So when a racing opportunity arises, you’ll be ready to jump on it. 

Taking a break from running will definitely keep your running fresh, and a period of time off should happen at least once or twice a year. But there are other options. Change, too, can reboot your mojo.