The Biggest Fitness Mistake Athletes Make: Taking A Long Break After Your Big Race

by coach Phil “Panther” Carmichal

For years, my athletes, from runners at Rogue, to the Rollergirls I coach in derby, to private clients in the gym, have been asking me what is the single biggest mistake that athletes make.   For years, my answer was the same: “They go too easy on their hard days and too hard on their easy days.”

About a year ago, I changed my answer.  I no longer believe that the biggest mistake that athletes like us (adults, non-professional, working out for fitness, fun, or to be competitive) is going too hard or too easy at inappropriate times.  Now, after coaching hundreds, if not thousands, of runners, triathletes, derby girls, cyclists, and weight lifters, I believe that the single biggest mistake that any of these athletes, in any sport, makes is taking long breaks after an event or at the end of their season.

I see it every February.  People train for 6 months, they run their marathon (usually Austin), then they basically stop running from February until September.  They “come back” in September, barely able to run 3 miles without stopping, out of shape, and dismayed as to the problem and why they’re “back to square one.”

I see it with runners in September, too.  They stop running over the summer because of the heat, then they try to come back in September and pick up where they left off.  But it doesn’t work that way!!

When you stop running, your body starts to lose fitness immediately, from day one.  Depending on the study you read, it only takes your body anywhere from 10 days to 6 weeks to lose much of the fitness that you’ve built up over the last 6 months of training.  The sooner you start back, the sooner you get back what you lose during your break, but, unfortunately, the longer you stay away, the more “unfit” you’ll get.

The Lesson: Most coaches, in any sport, including myself, suggest strongly to their athletes to take breaks after a major event or the end of a season.  But breaks should only be 3-6 weeks!  This is, by far, the biggest mistake that athletes make, in my opinion, in any sport, whether derby, running, triathlon, whatever.  Any coach at the professional level will tell you that the most successful athletes are the ones who train all year round, and who take short breaks, 3 or 4 weeks at a time, a few times throughout the year.  Or, as Woody Allen once said, “90% of success is just showing up.”  Take your break!  You’ve earned it….just don’t let “weeks” turn into “months,” or you’ll have to start all over.

Don’t throw away all of the work you’ve done – Fall Marathon training is beginning now!

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5 thoughts on “The Biggest Fitness Mistake Athletes Make: Taking A Long Break After Your Big Race

  1. You’re dead on Panther. It’s the difference between Riff Raff and the other Rogue training groups. We’re mostly year rounders and I suspect that’s why we have so many PR’s. Taking those long periods off also gets people hurt trying to do too much too fast.

  2. Love the advice. Question – does it work to switch sports instead of taking time off? Follow the marathon with a spring of biking? Spend the summer swimming instead of running?

    • From Panther:
      Certainly, taking a break from your primary sport and doing something
      different, like cycling or triathlon, or even tennis, or whatever you choose
      to do, is a good thing to do for your general fitness. It keeps you
      interested and motivated, and it makes your body react in different ways,
      raising your overall fitness.

      But remember that there is a difference between “overall fitness” and
      “sports-specific fitness.” If you take 3 months off, and you cycle, say,
      instead of run, when you come back to running, you might not be in bad
      “overall” shape, but you will not be anywhere close to “in running shape.”

      Sports specificity is one of the building blocks of training, and,
      especially in a town where there’s so much to do, from rowing to triathlon
      to cycling or climbing, it often gets short shrift from coaches and from
      athletes who want to “do it all,” or who suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing
      Out).

      Unfortunately, as I say in another one of my articles, “you cannot have 2
      masters,” and, if you want to reach your full potential as a runner, then
      you can only take off about 3 to 6 weeks, once or twice a year, then get
      right back to running. If you’re not interested in reaching your full
      potential, cool! Swim, bike, climb, bowl, and do whatever else you
      want….just remember that there’s only so much of YOU to go around, and
      sometimes we have to make difficult choices.

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