There’s no denying that there’s a distinct sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a run without stopping. Whether you’re training for a race or running purely for your health, you might need to pause occasionally to catch your breath or even to wait for a herd of cows to pass. But is it ok to take breaks while running, or does it decrease the benefits you got your best trail running shoes on for in the first place? We took a look at some studies on intermittent versus continuous exercise to try to answer this common question, and came up with a few pointers to help you cut down on those pit stops, if that’s your goal.
Is it OK to take breaks while running?
For many of you, the question is whether you still get the same benefit if you take breaks while running versus going on one long, continuous run. To help answer this question, it’s good to clarify three things first: what are you running for? What are you pausing for? And what are you doing during the break?
Starting with your reason for running, let's say you’re running for the cardiovascular benefits and you’ve set yourself a goal of running for thirty minutes a day, but you need to divide it up into three 10 minute running sessions in order to reach that goal. According to a study in the American Journal of Cardiology, benefits such as increased VO2 max would be comparable to doing one, continuous 30-minute run, and that’s even if you broke those 10 minute intervals up over the course of the day. However, if you’re training for a 5km race and you’re hoping to finish in a competitive time, relying on breaks to get you to the finish wouldn’t serve your goal. Read more on how to eliminate breaks later in this article.
Then you’ve got the question of why you’re taking breaks in the first place. If you’re pausing to allow your heart rate to recover so that you can return to a higher intensity level than you’d be able to sustain for, say, 30 continuous minutes, then you’re essentially doing interval training. Interval training has been shown to maximize aerobic improvement while minimizing the overall time spent per workout, so again, this can be a great way to train though you’ll want to read our article on interval training for runners to better understand how to approach your intervals to help meet your goals.
If you’re taking breaks because you’re just getting into running and find you simply can’t go on, on the other hand, then a study by the Institute of Human Performance found that taking short bouts of exercise produces similar results to continuous exercise in adults that had previously been sedentary. And if you’re stopping because there are obstacles in your way like crosswalks or the aforementioned herds of cows, that’s just part of running safety and you can either just pause your fitness tracker so the break don't count toward your overall time, or jog on the spot.
Finally, what you’re doing during the breaks may have some impact on how they affect your overall performance – although since the first study pointed out that you can break up your running intervals over the course of an entire day, this point is definitely debatable. For example, if you’re sitting down on a bench for 10 minutes, then the break itself might not provide the same benefit as if you continued to walk briskly or even jog slowly. There’s also the psychological question of whether stopping completely makes it harder to get going again, versus just slowing down.
Overall, the science seems to suggest that taking breaks while running is more than ok, especially if it’s what allows you to get moving in the first place. A study in the Journal of Clinical Endorcinology and Metabolism found that in young, obese adults this approach not only had the same benefits on their growth hormone secretion, but it was a more accessible regimen.
Regardless of whether you’re until-now sedentary or reasonably active and what your goals are, one other way to look at all this is that if taking breaks means you end up running for longer than you’d be able to without, then you get more benefit from running by doing so.
Do you burn fewer calories if you take breaks?
If you’re running for weight loss, you may be primarily concerned with whether taking breaks reduces how many calories you burn. After all, when exercise feels easier, it often doesn’t seem like it’s having the same impact on your physiology. However, lots of research such as a study in the Journal of Exercise, Nutrition and Biochemistry has found interval training to burn more calories than continuous exercise. It’s also good to remember that low impact exercise might burn fewer calories per hour, but burns more fat. If calories are an important part of your training, the best thing you can do is wear a fitness tracker so you’ll be able to monitor your stats and reach your goals.
Tips for running without breaks
Let’s say you’d like to be able to run for longer distances without taking breaks – whether you’re training for a race or just want that feeling of moving for longer – that’s a totally valid goal. There are a few things you can do to help you lengthen your time spent running and reduce your time spent on the bench.
- Slow down: You might simply be running too fast for your current fitness level, so wear a fitness tracker and see if you can slow down and find a more sustainable running pace, for now.
- HIIT workouts: Once or twice a week, do a focused High Intensity Interval Workout where you sprint for short distances and take recovery breaks to improve your overall cardiovascular strength.
- Walk your breaks: If your breaks have involved hunching over your knees and wheezing, try brisk walking instead, which will improve your fitness over time.
- Shorten the breaks: Time your breaks and make each one 10 seconds shorter than the previous one until you can eliminate them completely.
- Breathe: You may be out of puff because you’re not breathing properly, so read up on how to breathe while running and practice that.
- Use your downhills: If you’re running trails or hilly routes, you might be stopping after every climb to recover, but see if you can use your downhills in place of breaks to keep going while your heart recovers.
- Best trail running shoes: footwear for taking on tough terrain at speed
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Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.