When staring at a training plan, there’s an awful lot to get done, as well as all the other things that amount to living a semi-normal life. So when you see the word ‘rest’ pop up on your schedule, it’s tempting to simply skip past it and look for the next ‘real’ to-do. Really, why would you do nothing when there’s always something to cross off that long, long to-do list?
The answer to that question is simple: NOT running is just as important as fitting in that long weekend run or that Tuesday speed session. Rest days help to strengthen your body, sharpen your focus and reinvigorate your spirit so that you actually want to keep training.
‘Rest is not a four-letter word,’ says Dr Kevin Vincent, director of the University of Florida Running Medicine Clinic in the US. ‘The big reason you need it is recovery and recuperation. Every time you run, your body has to adapt to get stronger.’
That’s because when you run, you aren’t just building your stamina and strength; you’re also breaking your body down, causing a tiny amount of tissue damage with every step. And allowing yourself time to recover afterward is what makes it possible for you to come back better next week, next month, next race.
‘As much as athletes focus on their volume of training and the speed at which they do workouts, what they do outside of running is equally important to becoming stronger and more resilient in the future,’ says Dr Adam Tenforde, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehab at Harvard University, US, and a former elite runner.
Dr Bonnie Marks, staff psychologist at New York University’s Sports Performance Center, agrees. ‘If you don’t have time to recharge, it can lead to staleness and general apathy about training.’
In other words, rest right and you’ll run better, avoid time on the physio’s treatment table, stay motivated and gain more reward from your running. Fail to rest properly and you’ll slowly – or sometimes rather rapidly – fall apart. Follow these training tweaks to optimise recovery and build a stronger, and more rested, you.
WHY REST MATTERS
Whether you’re strictly a recreational runner or training more regularly and seriously, there’s value in taking at least one day off from your training each week – even if you’re deep into a run streak (see ‘What If I’m a Streaker?’ on page XX). That day off is when your body uses nutrients and undergoes biological processes and hormone cycles to rebuild itself, says Tenforde. Still got ants in your runderpants? Here are four more reasons to chill.
Your muscles bounce back
When you run (or do any kind of exercise), you create microscopic tears in your muscle fibres and your body likes those about as much as you like trying to open a sweaty gel packet after 15 miles. So it responds by rebuilding your muscles stronger, in preparation for the next session. Sounds like a good deal, but there’s a catch: that response only happens with adequate time off from exercising. Vincent says that, depending on the length and intensity of your workout, the body needs a minimum of 36-48 hours to properly reboot. Without it, the body has no opportunity to rebuild and strengthen muscles; they just continue to break down. That negates all the hard work you put in.
You avoid stress fractures
If you’re trying to sidestep an injury, rest is crucial. Contrary to what ill-informed naysayers will trot out, running is actually great for your bones – the impact stresses the bone tissue, and just like a muscle, that increases cell turnover and forces the bone to remodel with stronger structures, says Vincent. ‘But if you run today, tomorrow and the next day, it never has time to fully repair.’ Eventually, you could be looking at a stress fracture – and a lengthy spell out of action.
Tight tendons are protected
Tendons are connective tissues that hold muscle to bone, so they work constantly as the body moves. But blood doesn’t get to them easily, so they take longer to repair than tissues that get a more plentiful supply of your claret (like muscles), explains Vincent. If they don’t get that much-needed time, the constant pounding can cause chronic damage, such as tendinitis – which is inflammation from overuse.
Your brain has time to chill
Yes, running is a form of stress relief. But every time you lace up, it actually increases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. Why is that? ‘The body doesn’t know if you’re running away from danger or if you’re running for fun,’ says Vincent. That cortisol bump can cause mood issues, irritability, sleep problems and other health issues if stress levels are chronically high, says Marks. Think of it like a scale: overtrain, and you’ve tipped too far in one direction; schedule regular rest days, and you’ll bring yourself back in balance.
WHY YOU NEED TO EASE OFF
A lot of runners worry that time off can cause them to regress, but that’s not necessarily true. Jason Fitzgerald, coach and founder of Strength Running, says you can take a full week off and be fine. That’s why most sports doctors suggest scaling it back for one to two weeks after each big event. (Example: four to five days of very light physical activity – such as walking – then a week of strength, core work, flexibility and short runs to loosen things up.) When you follow this advice, you’ll enjoy these benefits.
You’ll fine-tune your body
There’s a difference between being totally sidelined and being hampered – aka feeling discomfort without major pain. If your body gets some proper R&R, it’s more likely that the problem will heal instead of turn into a fully fledged injury, says Fitzgerald.
Your body’s protective systems reset
When you fail to rest, you are, in effect, telling your body’s inflammatory process to be on high alert. That process is protective, yes, but when it’s in overdrive from constant running, it backfires – putting your body in a chronic state of inflammation that increases your risk of infections and other illnesses, says Kate Mihevc Edwards, an orthopaedic specialist at Precision Performance in Atlanta, US. Taking even a one-day run holiday will reduce the inflammation and lower your odds of being struck down by illness.
You can acknowledge growth
There’s real value in flipping through old training diaries or your historic Strava data and seeing how far you’ve come, says running coach and two-time US Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier Dr Magdalena Donahue. ‘You need to see what you’ve done, what worked and what didn’t, and let your brain relax,’ she explains. ‘The pause helps you come back a lot more energised and focused.’ Plus, it’s always great to look back on the runs you actually smashed…
You’ll stay motivated
If you’re constantly churning out the miles like a hamster on a wheel (now you see the relevance of the picture), that desire to do better, which originally burned so strong, can dwindle. Call it burnout, loss of mojo, whatever…coming back from it can be a long, hard slog. Scaling back helps you maintain your hunger to train and improve, so you don’t have to mentally start over at square one, says Fitzgerald.
DO I NEED MORE TIME OFF?
Sometimes you can tell. Like when you can’t walk down the stairs. Other times it’s not so obvious. If you’re wavering about taking a break, Vincent suggests asking yourself these three key questions:
- Did my last few runs feel harder than usual, even though they were the same training paces and distances as previous ones?
- Do I feel less motivated to run today?
- Does running feel more like a chore than something I enjoy?
>If you answered yes to any of the above, you should consider more rest.
How to start getting more rest
Ok, so you’re starting to get why time off and rest is important, but how do you go about doing that? Try these options:
Go low impact
Incorporating low-impact exercise (such as cycling, rowing and the elliptical machine) allows you to get the aerobic benefits you’re after without taxing your bones and tendons as you would by running. If you have access to a pool, swimming is one of the best options (try aqua-jogging for running-related benefits, or lap swimming if your legs need a break). ‘It has zero impact and being in a cool pool is soothing,’ says running coach Dr Magdalena Donahue.
Try ball sports
When you play tennis, social netball or just kick a football around in the back garden with the kids, you form more well-rounded muscles and bones, which reduces your risk of injury. ‘When you’re running, everything is linear, so your bone gets stronger in one plane of motion,’ says Vincent. ‘By doing something with lateral, back-and-forth movement, you strengthen in all planes.’
Make friends with your couch
Rest days don’t mean you have to veg out all day – in fact, Sarah Lavender Smith, author of The Trail Runner’s Companion (Falcon Guides), says you should always try to move a little – but there’s nothing wrong with taking a few hours to relax. Just do it on the day before your long run, not after. ‘It’s a mistake to go on a long, depleting run and then overeat and lie around the next day,’ says Smith. Doing so causes feelings of lethargy, bloat and overall blahs, she adds.
Play computer games
Studies have found that playing computer games can help control anxiety before performance, and one even discovered that players needed less recovery time after a stressful event. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why this is the case, but they theorise that by offering a way to escape to an alternative reality, computer games work as a calming mechanism to decrease stress.
Not only does a good kip combat mood issues and fatigue, but Fitzgerald says your duvet time is also the time when your body gets the most work done during its repair process. Plus, some research shows that poor sleep quality may be associated with loss of bone density, putting you at risk for developing stress fractures. (See? It all comes full circle.)
Science shows that this practice can help improve performance, ease symptoms of pain and boost your breathing. Marks suggests lying on the floor with your eyes closed, focusing on breathing from your belly – not your chest – for at least five minutes. (A good way to check if you’re getting this right is to place a book on your tummy – if the book rises, you’re breathing right.) If you struggle with staying that still – or your kids confuse your meditation time with human-trampoline time, opt for a quiet walk in nature or download a meditation app you can us eat the office.
WHAT IF I’M A STREAKER?
We’re not the ones to tell you to break a #RWRunStreak to catch up on your box-sets, but be aware of intensity. If you’re heading out for an easy mile to continue your streak, don’t worry about a rest day. But if intervals and speedwork are part of your routine, ‘recovery is much more important to fit in’, says Dr Bryan Heiderscheit, director of the University of Wisconsin Runners Clinic in the US.
How to fuel your recovery
No running, better rest, what next? Food is next, the fuel that makes you a better run also makes you better rester.
Don’t change too much
While many runners think they need to tighten their grip on calorie intake on a rest day, that’s not really the case. ‘It’s not necessary to restrict energy intake,’ says Dr Stephanie Howe Violett, a running and nutrition coach and winner of the Western States 100 ultra race in 2014. ‘That’s when most recovery and adaptation occurs, and proper nutrients are important to facilitate those processes.’ Instead, try to tune in to your hunger cues and opt for food quality over quantity.
Space out calories
Many people stack their calories towards the end of the day, meaning they eat a light breakfast and lunch and then go supersize at dinner time, says Tenforde. But that depletes your energy and makes your body more susceptible to breakdown. A steady supply is the best strategy, so if you must go light on your first two meals, balance it with nuts or fruit in between.
Fuel with micros
Carbohydrates, protein, fibre – those are the macronutrients you need to fuel a strong recovery. But runners also need micronutrients such as calcium, vitamin D and iron to replenish the body. Eating whole foods – lots of fruits, vegetables, and meat or beans – will help cover your micronutrient bases. Violett says you should aim for about half of your plate to be full of vegetables, whole grains and fruit. Then add a serving of high-quality protein and top with fat (better if it’s unsaturated) to make sure you get essential fatty acids that also aid in your recovery.
Rest days are a great time to pre-hydrate, as starting a run dehydrated is about as much fun as losing a toenail, says Violett. That doesn’t mean down a gallon of water at once – just be mindful about your intake over the course of the day (and check that your wee is a light- straw colour to see if you’re on track).
Enjoy that beer
Violett says it’s no big deal to indulge in a cheeky snifter, but it doesn’t exactly fuel your recovery. Opting for a ‘recovery’ beer after a tough workout? Eat a solid meal first. Going straight for the booze can hurt the body’s ability to restock glycogen stores, and your muscles may not recover as quickly.