Right now, you may not have time, be motivated or be able to get in the kind of run volume you’d like. The good news is if you already have a running base, it doesn’t take much to maintain it or even make improvements. Case in point: Western States 100 winner Clare Gallagher typically runs less than 60 miles weekly and was still able to win one of the biggest (100-mile) ultra races in the world.
If you’re a new runner, any time you can spend out on the roads or trails is time well spent. Even if you can only partially stick with your training plan, try to keep some kind of running routine going. Five minutes of jogging (or walking) in the morning is better than nothing and keeps you in the running habit so it’s easier to get back to it when you can run more again.
Here’s what you need to know about just how little you can run to stay at the level you’re currently at in your journey.
YOUR MINIMUM RUN PRESCRIPTION: 40 MINUTES OF AEROBIC TRAINING TWO TIMES A WEEK
A 2010 study showed minimal training time can keep your running base intact. Reduced training load included two 40-minute aerobic training sessions each week, with a few minutes of strength training twice a week. So for less than 90 minutes total per week, elite athletes were able to maintain most of their fitness.
Note: There’s no magic mileage threshold, rather, it’s about time on your feet. That’s because a 40-minute run for a serious racer could mean 6 or 7 miles, while for a newer runner, getting 2 miles done in that same time is a victory.
So, aim for at least two 40-minute runs each week. Sprinkle in 5–10 minutes of strength training (i.e., essential bodyweight exercises like pushups, lunges and air squats) two times each week as well to maintain your fitness.
For a longtime runner, you have roughly three weeks away from running entirely before you start to lose your running fitness. That same 2010 study showed the difference between a massively reduced training load versus taking time completely off was noticeable after just a few weeks. Those who stopped training entirely lost more maximal aerobic power as well as strength. Both the reduced-training and no-training groups also saw an increase in body fat percentage.
If you have to take a break from running due to injury and are feeling like you’re losing all of your fitness, don’t panic. It will come back, as long as you’re motivated to get back in the running routine. Walking, yoga, swimming and in-home resistance training are all fine alternatives if you simply can’t get out for your run — just try to get sweaty for at least 40 minutes.
It may not feel like you’re doing enough, but stay calm. Every little bit helps: Research has shown strength gains made in our younger years pay off in big ways later in life, even if we take a prolonged break from training.
In fact, reducing the training load right now might be a good idea. Research has shown athletes experience a decrease in their immunity and an increased risk of developing an upper respiratory infection during heavy training blocks. (And increased stress and symptoms of depression can also lead to upper respiratory infections.) So, even if you have the time, you may not want to be pushing any limits right now.
If you’re new to a running program, you’re more at risk for losing your fitness and struggling to come back to running, both from the physical and mental perspective. So even if you can only partially stick with your training plan, try to keep some kind of running routine going right now.
New runners may want to drop back to run/walking, or swap runs for brisk walks, but still aim for the consistency of doing 40 minutes of work two times a week. Something is always better than nothing since, as a new runner, you may not be at risk of losing too much running fitness yet. Rather, your greater risk is you’ll ditch the running habit and not come back to it when you do have time and ability to run again. Studies have shown the easier you make a habit, the more likely you are to do it, and part of making a habit easier comes with repetition.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While 40 minutes two times each week is a great target, consistency should be your primary focus. If you can’t fit in 40, then lace up those sneakers anyway and do 5 minutes of jogging in the morning. It’s better than hitting snooze and keeps you in the running habit so it’s easier to get back to it.