Speedwork, long runs, and strength training are only one side of the equation to improving as a runner. Without rest days, the hard work of training can actually become detrimental – and you might find yourself injured or overtrained. As counter-intuitive as it seems, rest days are essential for runners – and the harder you train, the more important they become.
Why Take a Rest Day?
Rest days prevent injury and help you improve as a runner. Running causes microscopic tears in your muscles and a breakdown of your entire physiological system, thanks to the impact load. A rest day allows your body to recover from this breakdown. Recovery reduces your risk of overuse injuries and stress fractures and allows your body to adapt to the training load. Rest days are essential to becoming a faster, stronger runner and achieving your goals.
Rest days provide mental benefits as well. A weekly break from training allows your mind to rest as well as your body. You will prevent burn-out from training and keep your mind fresh for your hard workouts and race day. I would also argue that a rest day maintains a sense of enjoyment in running.
Even easy runs stress the body. While stress is a desired stimulus in training, too much stress raises cortisol levels and increases the risk of overtraining. Overtraining is marked by fatigue, poor performance in workouts and races, moodiness, and loss of appetite. While overtraining differs from runner to runner and training cycle to training cycle, one of the best insurances you can take against overtraining is to include a weekly rest day.
What to Do on Your Rest Days
You will receive the most benefits from a rest day if you truly rest from all workouts – no running, no strength training, no spin class or other cross-training. Especially if you are pushing yourself in your strength training or cross-training, you are still contributing to the muscle breakdown and not allowing your body to fully recover.
One common complaint from runners is that the next run feels sluggish. This makes complete sense: your rest day is when your body repairs from the wear and tear of interval workouts and long runs.
Gentle, light movement will help you feel better during and after recovery days. Gentle movement does not mean a run: take a walk, spend time foam rolling, and stretch a bit. Many runners remark that foam rolling can be difficult to fit in – a rest day is a perfect time to do so, as you have the time to foam roll and it aids in recovery. If you are the type who needs to do something, gentle yoga can be a good option on a rest day.
I like to devote my rest days to mobility and stretching. I will take a long walk with the dogs, but to be honest, most rest days I don’t walk over 1-2 miles total. A walk keeps the legs loose without the structure or fatigue of formal exercise. I will also spend some time foam rolling and doing mobility work to facilitate the recovery process and ensure I feel fresh for my next run.
I sometimes hear runners say that they ran on their rest days because they felt energetic. Having energy is not an excuse to skip a rest day. You rest so that you do feel energetic – feeling fatigued and tired all the time is not how running should make you feel.
Scheduling Rest Days
In the attempt to schedule hard workouts, long runs, easy runs, and strength training into one week, many runners sacrifice rest days. (I have been guilty of that in the past!) Treat rest days as a priority in your training plan: schedule in a day of complete rest or active rest with a light activity such as yoga or a long walk.
Take planned rest days on a regular basis (such as weekly) and you will minimize your chances of taking longer periods of forced rest due to injury or burnout.
Periodization of Rest Days
Contrary to what some people may think, the harder you train for a race, the more you need a complete rest day. While you may be able to skip a rest day during base building due to the lower intensity and mileage, the hard workouts and higher mileage of race-specific training require more recovery.
For female runners, you may notice that you need more rest days shortly before your period or at the onset of menstruation. During the luteal phase (the 12-16 days between ovulation and menstruation), progesterone surges, leaving you more fatigued. Your workouts will also feel harder during this time (again, thanks to high hormone levels). More attention to rest and recovery can help you balance your training with your high hormones during the luteal phase.
There are times in life where more rest days are necessary: on vacation, after a race, after a physically demanding event like labor and delivery or surgery (we’re talking rest weeks in this case, not just days), when you are sick, or during high-stress times. When in doubt, take a rest day – too much rest may leave you slightly under-trained, but pushing your body too hard, too often will leave you injured, overtrained, or sick.
How often do you take a rest day?