When you talk to experienced runners who run six to seven days a week with mileage so high you wonder when they find time to do anything else, you probably might be thinking:
“How do their bodies hold up to that kind of mileage?”
“How do they stay injury-free?”
“What’s their secret?”
Well, yes, ouch is correct, but the reason behind their ability to put in those high mileage weeks with few to no injuries is no secret. Hidden among all the long runs, tempo runs, interval workouts and easy runs is the most important part of the training schedule: rest.
Rest is something that is often overlooked but provides essential time for the body and mind to recover and repair. When you run (or are doing other types of muscle building activities), tiny tears are formed in the muscle fibers that require time and nutrients to repair themselves. By allowing this to happen, they are rebuilt stronger, given that you give the body ample time to do so. This rebuilding can often take longer than a single day between runs or workouts, with at least a day or two off each week providing the best results. Sometimes this process can be expedited with protein-rich recovery supplements, but this isn’t nearly as effective without rest.
Rest not only allows our muscles to repair on a microscopic level, but curbs soreness so that we can perform better during our workouts. You may think that the best way to run better is to log the miles and hit interval paces, and while that’s true, it shouldn’t be at the expense of taking your rest days. It’s important to build these rest days into your training schedule so you both remember their importance and are not lost in the mix.
It’s also important to use rest to avoid training burnout. Training can be demanding, especially when you’re doing so for a race. It can leave you exhausted both physically and mentally drained, regardless of whether or not you hit your training goals. When this happens, rest becomes essential to recharge the batteries and bring you back to a state of motivation, sometimes helping you to rediscover why you run in the first place. Recently I jumped from a 12-week road half marathon training block into another 6-week plan for a 50K trail race. That trail race was unfortunately cancelled, and while I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to race, I took a much-needed two weeks off that left me refreshed, anxious to run again, and most importantly, excited to run again.
So, how do we rest?
When we’re injured or feeling stresses in the body, taking your rest days to spend time off your feet and not exercising is the best way to go. Even during those times of needing more than a couple days off, taking a brief step away from running can be beneficial. When it comes to your training blocks, some prefer and recommend your rest to be some sort of active recovery. This means some kind of cardio activity that is low or no impact such as swimming or cycling (to give the impacted muscles a break), strength training, or things like stretching, massage, yoga or foam rolling. These activities benefit your training in various ways while giving certain muscle groups that are often stressed during running a break.
Me? I generally prefer things like stretching and massage on my off-running days (not because I don’t have access to a swimming pool, a bike, or gym, or have the attention span for yoga), but I know plenty of people that do some, all or none of these things. Figure out what works for you, and find ways to work them into your schedule. Whatever it may be, don’t skip out on your rest days because they’ll be the most important parts of your running!