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Why the length of your rest breaks can make or break your workout

Deciding how long to rest in between hard intervals might not seem all that important but the length of your breaks can drastically change the outcome of your workout

tired woman runner taking a rest after running hard on city road

Planning your next big workout? We all know that the number of repeats, the length of intervals and the pace you run at are key details. But deciding how long and whether or not to rest between hard efforts is nearly as important as the fast stuff.

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Why take the rest break

Taking rest breaks (either by slowly jogging, walking or just stopping to catch your breath) in between hard intervals allow us to maintain the harder paces. We go faster and longer than we would without resting. Their primary function is to allow us to recover (mentally and physically) just enough to be ready to run hard again.

But what is ‘just enough’ and what happens when the rest break is too short or too long?

When the rest period is too short

If the rest period is too short, recovery will be insufficient. As a result, you’ll likely tire and be unable to maintain the desired pace (the other common reason this happens is running faster than you should). And once you start running slower than you should be, you are not getting the desired benefits from the workout. There’s also a risk of injury and burnout.

If you find yourself slowing down mid-workout, consider extending your rest break to get back on pace. This could mean extending your 200m recoveries between 400m intervals to a full 400m or adding a minute to your recovery between kilometre repeats. Likewise, if you find yourself starting to fall off pace during a continuous tempo run, try taking a short, three to five minute break and then resuming.

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When is the break too long?

Taking too long to rest between intervals can also negatively impact your training. If you rest long enough to be fully recovered, you may end up running at a faster pace than intended. This might be great for your confidence but will do little to improve your race times when it matters. Also, some rest breaks are meant to give you a much needed mental break while staying in a certain training zone (such as a certain percentage of max heart rate). If you rest too long, you risk leaving that zone and again missing out on important physiological benefits.

As a general rule, your rest breaks should rarely ever exceed the time it takes to run a given interval (strides and hill repeats are exceptions to this rule). If you’re just starting out, try taking longer rest and gradually reducing the rest break as you go.