Why Is It So Difficult to Start Running After a Break?

You know this feeling. You were in a running groove for a while, and it took nothing to lace up your shoes and head out for a run.

But then you took a break.

It may have been an injury, a life event, work, or maybe you got tired of it.

Now, you’re ready to start running after a break, but it’s so difficult. You can’t find the motivation you had before. Going for a run seems like something that should be banned under the Geneva Convention, not something fun.

This is common, and every runner suffers from it.

And there are a few underlying reasons why running after a break is so difficult.

  1. Your aerobic system begins regressing the longer you take off, making it a fraction of what it was before.
  2. Your structural system (your muscles) starts to decline, increasing the difficulty and the risk of injury.
  3. You’ve stopped reinforcing the habit, making you start from the beginning to get it going again.

But, this doesn’t mean you can’t begin again. In fact, these reasons are why you should start running again. So, let’s look deeper into why these things occur.

Why It’s So Difficult to Start Running After a Break

There’s a reason consistency is so important in running. It takes repeated efforts to build up your aerobic and structural systems.

You can lose this quickly depending on your fitness level if you take extended time off.

Aerobic System Declines

You don’t have much to worry about if you’re taking a short period off (for example, one week). The effects on your aerobic system are minimal, and you can regain them quickly.

However, after two weeks is where you start to see a more significant loss.

After two weeks, your VO2 max — how much oxygen your body absorbs and uses during exercise — decreases by around 6%. Not a huge amount, but enough to notice a difference.

And the more extended break you take, this only gets worse by about 2% each week. For simplicity’s sake, I’m using a rough estimate here.

Your aerobic system can recover easily when running after a break

Some studies have shown that after 11 weeks of no running activity, you could suffer as much as a 25% decrease in your VO2 max.

But what does this mean?

This means you’ll find it more challenging to run at faster speeds for the same duration as before.

For example, in a 5k, you’re looking at a potential 5-minute difference in finish time if you’ve taken a break of 11 weeks or longer. That’s huge at the 5k distance.

Add this over a longer distance, compounding into markedly different finish times.

Structural System Declines

So, now that we’ve analyzed the aerobic side. What about your actual muscles, the power you generate, and your injury avoidance?

Turns out that a running break hurts this area also.

As you run and do strength workouts (if you do), you’re building up your body’s resilience and endurance to the forces it takes.

Yet, it takes longer for your body to build its structural endurance than its aerobic endurance.

While this area must be studied more in-depth, we have some insight into this area.

Your structural system takes longer to recover when running after a break

After around seven days of no running activity, your body’s structural endurance declines.

So, in essence, your body can always run. It can’t always withstand the forces from running, though. And you’ll notice this when you get back into the swing of things.

You might feel like you lack the rhythm you had, and the impacts appear to hurt more than before your break, potentially leading to injuries.

And, there’s nothing worse for getting back into running than having to take time off again to deal with a nagging injury.

Motivational Declines

Running is a sport as much as it is a habit. It takes a strong mind (and commitment) to lace up your shoes and consistently head out for a run.

As James Clear mentions in his groundbreaking book Atomic Habits, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”

When you take an extended break, you’re taking consistent votes against the person you wish to become.

And that compounds significantly over time.

Motivation is the most difficult to get back when running after a break

As you stop running, that habit begins to “erase” from your mind and becomes less and less of a habit you have.

That’s why it’s so difficult to find that consistency again once you wish to start back up. Your mind has deviated from being a runner.

So, instead of urging you forward, it fights you with each step you take out the door in your running shoes.

How to Get Back Into Running After a Break

Let’s break this down as we did above to make running after a break easier.

Both systems recover at different rates, so treating them differently and being mindful of your body is essential.

As far as motivation, that may take the most conscious effort to achieve again.

Improving Your Aerobic System After a Break

At first, you want to take it easy. This means fewer fast workouts and easier running to bring your aerobic system back into things.

Start by running fewer days per week than you were before you stopped. A good starting point would be 2-3 days.

These runs must be easy, don’t set out to break any records (or any Strava segments.)

Also, work in some cross-training that’s low impact. Cycling, swimming, ellipticals, or even walking are great for this.

These exercises work your aerobic system but help you avoid the pesky injury bug.

A running plan should incorporate a lot of easy running when running after a break

After a few weeks, work in an extra day of running. Your aerobic system will start to build back, and you can begin adding in a faster workout.

But, it’s critical to avoid going out too hard; you still want to keep the majority of your runs easy to avoid the impacts on your structural system.

With time, continue adding runs as you see fit, and you’ll see your aerobic system back to pre-break levels.

Improving Your Structural System After a Break

This will be the most critical part of building yourself back into running shape. As mentioned above, avoiding injuries is goal number one here.

Start with some strength workouts to help build your muscles.

Gym workouts, medicine balls, HIIT workouts — anything that helps you build strength while minimizing impact.

During your running workouts, incorporate more hills.

Hills are fantastic for minimizing impact while giving your legs (and your aerobic system) an excellent workout. It’s a full leg workout, incorporating your glutes, calves, quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors.

But, it’s not only your legs that benefit.

The benefits of uphill running are numerous

Uphill running also helps build your core. You’re driving your knees up and engaging your core to maintain an upright posture as you run uphill.

Your core is essential to proper running form and building a more robust body.

If you’re averse to the gym (I know I am), running uphill is an excellent substitute for helping build strength.

Improving Your Motivational System After a Break

There’s no easy way into this one. This takes pure grit and determination. And in my opinion, this is the most challenging part of running after a break.

Building a habit (or building a habit again) takes a lot of willpower. But, there are ways to give your mind a little push.

I’ll turn to James Clear again on this one; this time in the form of his four rules:

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

Make Running Obvious

James recommends making a habit scorecard of all the habits you perform already. But, I’ll turn to what he calls “habit stacking.”

The best way to enforce a new habit is to chain it to an existing habit. This can be as simple as brushing your teeth, washing dishes, or coming home from work. But, it needs to be something you consistently do.

For example, after I get home from work, I will go for a run.

It's crucial to chain your habit to another habit when running after a break

By chaining, or stacking, your running habit onto an existing one, you make it more likely you will do said habit.

But, you should be specific with this.

For example, I will run for 30 minutes after I get home from work. More specificity means you’ve already answered the questions your mind will ask you.

Make Running Attractive

You need to have a reward when you complete your run. Otherwise, what will overcome your desire to sit on the couch after work instead of running?

Enter “temptation bundling.”

We’ve all heard our parents say, “You can’t eat your cake until you’ve finished your vegetables.” This is an example of temptation bundling.

Your parents want you to eat your vegetables. They know they’re good for you.

But, they know you want the delicious piece of cake sitting on the counter five feet away.

So, they get you to do the good thing for you by tempting you with the reward afterward.

Find that reward that will be waiting for you after your run

Let’s take an existing habit, only one that excites you. For me, this is video games. I love playing video games.

An example of my habit stacking could be: After I get home from work, I will run for 30 minutes and then play video games for 30 minutes.

By adding in that reward habit after running habit I’m building, I make it more likely I’ll stick with the habit.

Remember, this has to be rewarding to you. You must have that enticing piece of “cake” waiting for you after your run.

Make Running Easy

Habits become easy when they need minimal effort. When we add more difficult actions to continue a habit, it’s more likely to fail.

So, we need to make going on a run as easy as it is to spread out on the couch for an after-work nap.

Best way to do this?

Set out your clothes and shoes to have them prepared for your run

Set your running clothes before leaving for work and put your shoes next to the door.

I’d recommend wearing your shoes to work, but in most settings, this would be frowned upon (and a fashion faux pas).

Making it as straightforward as possible to get yourself out the door sets you up to succeed.

Make Running Satisfying

Do you mean running isn’t satisfying in and of itself?

This isn’t true in most cases. I love instant gratification, and I’m sure you do, too.

Make your reward satisfying and where you can see the progress, often visually.

Looking at a graph of my miles (usually on Strava) increase after each run is a fantastic feeling. I love seeing my week’s total increase further than the week before. It’s immediate gratification that makes me feel good.

Tracking your running progress is a great way to get motivated when running after a break

Find what works for you. This can be a habit tracker, graph, or a stack of cookies you add to that you’ll enjoy at the end of the month.

Whatever it is, find your gratification and make it rewarding to add to and it’ll be easier to get started running after a break.

Conclusion

Breaks are inevitable when running and are often beneficial if you do them right.

But, most important is you have the will to jump right back into it.

But don’t be too hard on yourself. Running after a break is difficult, and getting yourself out there is challenging. Even if it’s a mile, it’s still progress toward improving yourself.

So, get out there and have some fun! And leave that couch at home feeling a bit lonely.