Last Updated on April 22, 2020 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Wondering how to maintain running fitness when you don’t have any races scheduled? You definitely aren’t alone (especially right now). For many runners, having a full race calendar helps keep them not only motivated, but on track when it comes to training. There’s really no need to question if you are doing things “right” when you’re constantly in the middle of a training cycle, with a specific start and end date.
But what happens when you don’t have any upcoming races to look forward to? You may find yourself wondering if you should even bother with long runs. Or if it’s even worth putting in a speed workout. Don’t worry, coach Heather is here to help:
How to Maintain Running Fitness:
So, you’ve run your race, and you’re unsure of what to do in the future. Or, maybe you simply haven’t pulled the trigger on signing up for your next race. Worse yet, maybe your races are currently indefinitely postponed.
Now is the time to contemplate what your short term and long term goals are when it comes to maintaining running fitness. The most common answers are going to be either maintaining running fitness solely for health purposes, or maintaining a running base for future race purposes. So I’m going to address both cases in this post.
Maintaining Running Fitness for Health
You’ve completed your goal race, and you’re ready for a break from long, structured training. Completely understandable, and well deserved! If you fall into this category, I recommend keeping the basic guidelines for physical activity for healthy adults, recommended by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (and ACSM, CDC, etc.) in mind. The following amounts of exercise, per week, are recommended as a baseline for optimal health:
- 150 minutes to 5 hours per week of moderate, cardiovascular physical activity , *OR*
- 75 to 150 minutes per week of vigorous cardiovascular physical activity, *AND*
- At least 2 days of muscle resistance training that includes every major muscle group.
How does that translate to running?
Well, in the simplest terms, it boils down to 30 minute runs, five days a week, at a moderate pace, plus two strength training workouts. You can certainly split that into shorter runs and a long run, or even add some cross training in there. The best part is that exact distances and times don’t really matter here – now is the time to have fun!
Personally, I would add a moderate to harder effort in there, such as speed-work or a hill workout, to keep your body strong and your mind motivated. Personally, I find those types of workouts fun, which definitely breaks up the monotony!
Run for Health Sample Week:
Below is a sample of what a “running fitness for health” maintenance week would look like. This plan meets the minimum requirements for cardiovascular and resistance training for healthy adults, recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services .
Basically, when it comes to maintaining fitness for health, what matters most is that you move your body, regularly and consistently.
Maintaining a Solid Running Mileage Base for Race Purposes
Perhaps you fall in this second category. You want to race again in the future, you’re just not exactly sure when. But you do know that when the time comes to hop back into a training cycle, you’d like to have maintained a solid running base.
The following are components I would personally include in a base maintenance training plan.
One to two easy, shorter runs. “Short” of course is relative to what sort of training base you are hoping to maintain (are you regularly running half marathons, or hundred milers?). Anywhere from 30 minutes to a full hour, of zone 1 or 2, easy, “conversational” pace/effort.
The goal of these runs are to build a solid endurance base: this is essentially where you become better at running slow miles for a long time. You are also tapping into:
- Fat oxidization (using stored fat for fuel)
- capillary building
- increased blood flow to muscles to aid in recovery
If you look at your training week as a whole, the majority of your runs should be done at this effort (typically including your long runs).
Speed and Hill Work
One day a week you should incorporate a high intensity strength building run. This could be speed work, or perhaps a hill workout. Effort should be significantly harder, and duration shorter (30-45 minutes). The purpose of these workouts include:
- recruiting and training fast twitch muscle fibers
- working on foot turnover
- building climbing strength
- teaching body to withstand higher levels of lactic acid build up
- learning to push through the muscular fatigue
Incorporating speed work and hill workouts will help keep you a well rounded runner, rather than falling into the trap of running the same effort and speed 100% of the time.
The cornerstone of distance running is the long run. The run in which your body adapts to being on your feet for a long (or really long, I’m looking at you ultra runners!) time. But how “long” should you go?
Half Marathon: for the half marathon distance, maintaining a long run of 5-6 mile will allow you to comfortably jump back into an 8-10 week training plan.
Marathon: for a full marathon, maintaining a long run of 6-8 miles will allow you to comfortably jump back into a 16 week training plan.
Ultramarathon: since the majority of my readers seem to be in this category, I’m going to focus a little more on the needs of ultrarunners. Personally, I’ve found that hovering around a 10 – 15 mile long run will allow you to jump into almost any ultra training plan, be it a 50K or even a 100 miler.
When you don’t have a specific race on the horizon, maintaining runs in the 20+ mile distance range can, for some people, do more harm than good. If your body responds well to high mileage and you do not have a history with overuse injuries or physical and/or mental burnout, then feel free to continue logging longer distance long runs. But for the rest of us mere mortals (haha) the 10-15 mile range is sufficient.
Every fourth week, give yourself a bit of a cutback. Cut your total volume / mileage down by about 30% to allow your body to rest and recover. Yes, this is helpful even during “downtime” when you aren’t in a specific training cycle. Recovery weeks, or cutback weeks, will allow your body to:
- rebuild glycogen stores
- reduce the risk of overuse injuries
- reduce the risk of physical/mental burnout
Don’t forget your strength training! Resistance training is not only imperative for healthy muscles, it’s super important in preventing injury for runners.
Related post: Benefits of Strength Training for Runners
In addition to the two days per week of every major muscle group mentioned in the above CDC guidelines, runners should also incorporate run-specific strength work. I recommend adding a third day of strength training where you focus on your core, hips, and glutes. These are all areas that are often surprisingly weak in runners. These weaknesses can lead to common running injuries. So: strengthen them!
Run Base Maintenance Sample Week:
Below is a sample running base maintenance week. Again, the actual distances and time on feet are going to depend on what sort of base you want to maintain. This is an example of what I do when I am not training for an ultramarathon.
Final Thoughts on Running Maintenance:
Maintaining running fitness during those “down times” when you don’t have a race planned doesn’t have to be rocket science. The most important factor, in my opinion, is consistency. Staying consistent with movement – whether it be running or even cross training – will help keep your body healthy and ready for the rigors of a specific training cycle when the time comes.
During this downtime, learn to listen to your body. If you feel good? Run a little further or a little faster. Feeling tired? Cut back on effort, or take a day off! Because again, consistency, when it comes to maintenance, is far more important than the exact number of miles you run, how fast you run them, or when you run them.
And lastly: hang in there, my friends. Sometimes uncertainty or having nothing planned can be a good thing. You will race again, and when that time comes, you’ll be happy you kept your body moving!
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.