Stop confusing rest days and active recovery days with being lazy or skipping training. They are training.
With all of our apps, run streak challenges and watches counting our every step and weekly messages like #nevermissamonday flooding our social feeds, it’s easy to feel like we MUST always be pushing. Plus, as runners we tend to thrive on our daily endorphin rush.
Add to that some old ideas we have about MORE = BETTER.
The more we work out…
…the faster we’ll be
…the more weight we’ll lose
…the better shape we’ll be in
The way we think about rest days is broken. Rest has become a four letter word in the cover your ears kind of sense.
I’m here to tell you that this is not so, my friends. In fact, skipping rest and recovery is one of the biggest mistakes runners make.
But I know that it’s not always so easy to immediately go from non-stop to a full no holds bar rest day. And the good news is that may not be exactly what you need!
So let’s reframe the way we think about rest days.
Perhaps by referring to them to as active recovery days…mm that sounds better already.
The Importance of Rest Days for Running
First, why do most training plans include a standard weekly rest day? A few of the things that happen on a running rest day:
- muscles to heal
- prevents overuse injuries
- increases your performance
- helps you to maintain a love of the sport
When we stop allowing ourselves a rest day or recovery day, the body gets frustrated because the equation is stress + rest = growth… without the rest, you’ve just got stress!
Here are a few signs that you’ve been neglecting rest.
Elevated resting heart rate.
Take your resting heart rate each morning for a week or so to get an idea of what is normal for you. An elevated heart rate can indicate exercise-related stress caused by increased oxygen flow to repair torn muscles. Five to 10 beats over per minute could indicate that you’re in need of rest.
Poor sleep or insomnia.
Overtraining can wreak havoc on your sleep because your body is trying to repair all those torn muscles! Lack of sleep can result in slower reaction times, weaken the immune system, and decrease endurance.
An overworked body may leave you feeling hungover, mentally exhausted, or even depressed over time. The body produces more hormones like cortisol that can trigger anxiety and cause irritability.
If your workouts seem more difficult or you just simply can’t get through them, that is a surefire sign of exhaustion. Alternatively, with a compromised immune system from all the work your body is putting toward repairing the muscles, you’re likely to fall ill more often.
If you’re nervous about how quickly do I lose fitness <<—- go read that.
How Many Rest Days Do I Need to Take Each Week?
The answer varies depending on your fitness level and workout intensity. The standard plan says 1 running rest day per week, but as I’ve found with the athletes I coach, during base building they can often use that day for active recovery rather than full stop rest.
As the miles increase and they get closer to mid-late training cycles where the workouts are harder, that rest day becomes a welcome time to simply relax. Allowing the cortisol to drop and to feel rejuvenated for the coming miles.
Below I’ll talk first about active recovery and then about the 10 day training cycle, which could work better for those of you who don’t always feel you need a full rest day each week.
What’s The Difference Between a Rest Day and Active Recovery?
Seeing the words “rest day” in our training programs, most runners do one of two things:
- Rejoice over the fact that we get to be a couch potato
- Throw a tantrum because we’re not allowed to move for an entire day
Both of these assumptions are exaggerations and neither is exactly what should happen on a rest day.
Rest days mean go about your daily activities, like errands, walking the dog, bike commuting, and light housework. Don’t help your friend move, paint the house, or overhaul the yard. Keep it simple and don’t go too crazy.
I know you see elite runners talking about runs on their rest days, but they aren’t juggling a full time job, family and everything else.
YOU NEED REST.
If your body is begging for a day off, then this is your chance to embrace the free time knowing that you’re making progress by sitting with a good running book. Period. Stop.
Now, if the thought of complete rest makes your eye twitch, then take an active recovery day.
Benefits of Active Recovery
Active rest days or active recovery workouts are easy exercise sessions that help get the blood flowing to aid in muscle repair.
This is not the time to go all out on a high intensity training session.
Rather, choose a low-impact workout that still gets your blood flowing and benefits your running.
Active rest days benefit runners in several important aspects:
- Minimizes the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, which is responsible for stiffness and soreness the days following a tough workout.
- Helps lower your heart rate. Athletes whose bodies recover more quickly to a resting heart rate level enjoy improved endurance over time.
- Retain strength and stamina from training after a hard effort (like race day). I am all for taking a running break after a marathon to allow muscle recovery, however we don’t want to lose all our fitness.
- Improve mobility and flexibility with workouts you’d otherwise skip entirely.
- Maintains a habit. This is one of the things I love most about not just sitting for the day. Instead, you get going at your standard workout time, maintaining the link in your brain that this is when you do sweaty things.
Active Recovery Workout Ideas
Cross training is super beneficial to runners because it helps prevent fatigue and burnout, plus it activates other muscle groups that running may miss. These active recovery workouts aren’t meant to be long or intense, they can be as short as 10 minutes if you’re feeling tired or as long as an hour if you’re out strolling with a friend.
When I prescribe recovery days for my athletes, it usually focuses on three specific areas:
Yoga: A chance to slow down, work on your breathing, open tight hips and give you a chance to move without over doing it. I know you think you hate it, click the link to read more on why it’s going to help you!
Core Workouts: I’ve talked a LOT about the benefits of core work, but I’m a real life example. After knee surgery, my PT pointed out I needed core strength to help that knee continue feeling good. I started making core part of my week and always on my Monday recovery. Going back a year later he stated “I can tell you’ve done the work because now your hips are stable, your movements are better and it’s translating all the way through your foot strike.”
Mobility: This is an overlooked area with massive benefits! Here’s a quick video of ideas, along with an explanation of how mobility works!
If you’re early in training or just feeling good, an active recovery day could also mean an easy hike, bike ride or swim. Learn to listen to your body!!
Consider the 10-day Training Cycle
Most training schedules look fairly similar in terms of tasks for a standard 7 day week: long run, speed work, easy runs, rest. And don’t forget strength training! All crammed into one week.
The weeklong training plan is easy to implement since we operate in weeks thanks to our calendared lives. Our bodies, however, have no concept of the calendar, and squeezing all the work we need to achieve our running goals into seven days may result in more stress and inadequate recovery.
Bart Yasso introduced me to the idea of a 10-day training cycle in his book My Life on the Run. In fact, he even graciously outlines those plans for various runner abilities! Here’s an example from the newbie marathoner plan.
The extended training cycle is becoming more popular, and many elite athletes, including Meb Keflezighi (who talks about this in Meb for Mortals) have embraced the longer training period, though he often uses a 9-day cycle.
- It allows for more time between hard workouts
- Providing more time for recovery
- Great for injury prone or masters runners who need more recovery
- Easier to implement when you don’t have a strict schedule, as you may need to do a long run mid-week
- Requires more advance planning of your schedule to have the appropriate amount of time
- May mean missing out on group runs
As with every training style, it’s important to understand what works for you! But this is one that I would like to give a shot in my next marathon build up. Especially since my boss thinks running is pretty amazing and would likely give me the time ;)
How do you embrace the rest day?
What are your favorite active recovery workouts?
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