By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning
Old man winter is here and that means it’s time for athletes to get knocked out with the cold, flu and generic ‘bugs’ of all shapes and sizes. Whether a day off comes from an illness, injury, or one of life’s myriad of curveballs, at some point you are going to miss a well planned and meticulously thought out day of training. While most missed training sessions can be chalked up into the ‘no big deal’ category, how you move and shift the subsequent days and your attitude surrounding your training can have a big impact on your success down the line. Here are some rules of the road (err, trail) for when you miss a day or three of training.
The science of detraining
I’d be remiss if I did not give some quick hits on what a few days off does to your fitness. After all, we are talking about what to do if you have to take a few zero days instead of the puke inducing hill workout you had planned. Surely as a result of those missed days you are going to take a monumental step back in the fitness you have so arduously earned. Here’s a summary of the research: if you miss up to 7 days of training, there are no meaningful fitness implications. Zero, zilch, nada. Sure, I can throw someone in our physiology lab and measure that components of their physiology like VO2max or stroke volume is down by 2.21% or some other meaningless amount (see the graph below). But, some minutia of physiological degradation does not always mean a performance degradation. And, the practical amount of fitness degradation you actually get from missing up to a whole week of training isn’t all that much, particularly if you look at it through the lens of the entirety of training (see more on that below). Remember this when you get a cold and are trying to determine when your first run back is going to be. Err on the conservative side, your fitness is likely not to be impacted at all.
So here’s my caveat for all of the moving and shaking of training to come. All of the scenarios below assume you are ACTULLY ready to move on with training. If you are coming off of an injury or illness, you FIRST need to make sure you are ready to resume training. THEN, you can follow the steps below.
Rule #1, don’t panic
Nobody ever made a dime panicking, and your fitness will not improve if you panic about missing a day. Similar to how I wrote about your longest long run representing a small fraction of the total run volume while you are preparing for an event, having an unplanned rest day is a small part compared to the totality of training. Furthermore, the training run you missed does not evaporate into thin air. If you remember anything from this article, remember this:
‘Your body can only handle so much training stress over long periods of time.’
If you have taken the time to be thoughtful about your training (or you are working with a coach) the training stress you miss one day, regardless of due to injury, illness, or life’s happenings, will (at least) partially make its way back into your running routine in some shape or form. At the very least, your next workout will be of higher quality, partially ‘making up’ for the lost miles. You can also rearrange your schedule like in the examples below. In certain cases, both happen. And, if you really take the time to evaluate the before and after pictures of training, over the course of a couple of months, the missed opportunities from a few zero days of training rarely have an impact. The missed training opportunities are never as big as they initially seem on paper because we are looking at them through a short term lens. Broaden that lens out several weeks and it’s not as big of a deal. The key is to have a long lens when evaluating training. So, look at your training over months not days.
If you missed one to two days
If you have missed one or two days of training, your advice is simple: ‘play on’. Even if the two days you missed were ridiculously important (either real or in reality), I honestly don’t think it’s worth your time to try to make those days up, particularly if you have been doing a good job being consistent with your training in previously weeks. Trust me, you’ll live. And based on the science of detraining above, you won’t really skip a beat.
If you missed greater than three days of training
If you have missed greater than three days of training, your best course of action is to see of you can rearrange between half and seventy-five percent of those missed days somewhere later down the line. You can do this by replacing an endurance day with a harder interval workout, adding time on to a shorter run, replacing a rest day and likely, all of the above. When I am doing this with my athletes, I take an ‘all of the above’ approach. By adding little bits of training to certain days and substituting one workout for another you can get close to what you have previously planned. Don’t try to make up 100% of what was lost and don’t simply copy and paste the missed workouts down the line. Remember, you still need to recover from whatever monkey wrench life has thrown at you. So, you are not going to be able to make up 100% of what you lost (nor should you try). I also encourage athletes and our coaches to do this while the interruption is happening, even if you have to modify it a bit as the days unfold. This is because by demonstrating how the rest of the schedule over the next several weeks, it takes the pressure off of the athlete to return to training immediately. You see that the days are not completely lost, merely shifted around and modified. Here’s a 4-point action plan-
- Aim to replace 50-75% of the missed runs/volume over the course of 4-6 weeks
- Look to replace the more important workouts first. This will normally be interval days
- The total time of any missed endurance runs can be spread out over the course of several days. I would not increase one day by any more than 25% of what you had originally prescribed. For example, if you miss two different one-hour endurance runs (2 hours total) you can replace that volume over 4-5 different days in 15-minute increments.
- Missed recovery runs do not need to be replaced
I’ve provided an example below to give you some guidance on this if it happens in your own training. In this example, 4 days were missed in the first week (indicated by the red X) from the training plan on the left. The new training plan is displayed on the right. I rearranged the harder Tempo workouts to subsequent weeks (indicated by the blue arrows on the left and green text on the right) and added 15 min to some of the subsequent long runs. Note that none of the hard workouts were missed, one hour of the two-hour long run was replaced by adding 15 minutes to four subsequent long runs and the recovery run was not replaced. In this way, some, but not all, of the four days of missed training is replaced by some smart rearrangement.