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Rest is one of the most important parts of a training program, but it is often the most neglected. The majority of athletes, especially the new and excited ones, tend to question the importance of rest days. But as a long-time athlete, I’ve had my fair share of overtraining and burnout. And in most cases, the culprit was neglecting rest days.
As a general rule, the majority of runners should have at least two rest days a week. One of these days could be an active rest while the other should be a full rest day.
But, like all things, this too isn’t a universal rule for all runners. There are a lot of factors that could affect a runner’s need for rest days. Some may need more, while others need less. Ahead, we will discuss some of those factors and find out the importance of rest days. We will also discuss when to rest, and how often should you rest.
The Importance Of Rest Days For Runners
Have you ever seen one of those motivational videos that seem to imply that you should never stop until your body gave up? I certainly did, and at one point in my career, it led me to believe that more is always better. I was constantly hammering the pavement, stacking up miles, and doing strengthening exercises on days that I’m not running.
I believed I was doing it to improve. I thouaght I can handle the “no rest days” approach to running. After all, I came from a very high-intensity sport. I thought If I was able to handle heavy weights and high-intensity exercises back to back, there’s no way I couldn’t handle an 4 mile run on a moderate intensity every day.
But after a few weeks into that routine, I found myself unmotivated, sore, and I wasn’t running any faster or farther. In other words, I was stuck.
Later did I found out that my former experience as a Crossfit athlete did not exempt me from the importance of rest days.
Like all kinds of exercise, running creates microtears in your muscles. It’s an important and inevitable part of the process. An exercise must induce stress to create those microtears which your body will eventually adapt, making your muscles stronger.
Rest days are important to allow your body to adapt to the physiological changes brought about by the stress applied through running. It also allows your body to recover from the damage acquired through training.
Aside from the repetitive use of the same muscles over a long period of time, running is also a high-impact sport. Meaning, your body receives a repetitive impact from you hitting the pavement which, as I’ve learned, is about 3x your body weight.
Rest days allow your bones and joints to take a break from the impact making them important in preventing overuse injuries and stress fractures.
I’d also be the first to say that taking a day off in running is important in keeping you motivated to run. Burnout is a real thing in sports. Rest days allow your mind to reset and look forward to running.
So, how often should you take a rest day?
How Often Should You Take A Rest Day a Week?
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the majority of runners should take at least 2 rest days a week. However, it’s not the same for everybody. Your need for rest days can depend on a few factors like:
- Your current level of fitness
- Your goals
- Your experience
- Your time
- Your work
- And your energy
- The type and distance of your regular runs
- Your weekly mileage
Beginners can argue that they need more than just 2 days a week for recovery, while some elite runners may not even take a full rest day for multiple weeks.
To serve as a guide, I laid out the number of rest days you could take depending on your situation.
Rest 3-4 days a week if:
- You’ve lived a sedentary lifestyle most of your life and you’re looking to ease into the sport of running. Your goal at this point is to build a weekly routine and sticking to it. At this point, the best way is to alternate running days with rest days.
- You work multiple jobs and you’re usually very tired and stressed from work. It’s important to take other types of stress into account when building out a training plan.
- You came from an injury and you’re still easing yourself back to running. Your goal at this point is to introduce stress slowly and carefully.
Rest 2-3 days a week if:
- You’re increasing your weekly mileage or getting ready for a short race. At this point, your body has adapted to running and your focus now will be improving. At this point, you’re working on multiple things such as speed and endurance. You’re also adding variety to your runs.
- You’ve committed to working out and losing weight by exercising regularly. Your goal at this point is to stick to your schedule and gradually increase your mileage over time.
Rest 1-2 days a week if:
- You’ve been running for quite some time and you decided it was time to take your training up a notch. You signed up for a half/full marathon and you are training to finish the best you can at your current level of fitness. At this point, you’re adding strength training to your program to help improve your running.
- Only very few athletes should even attempt this. These athletes have built up their weekly mileage over long periods and have adapted to very high mileage. They do this only for a few weeks in their training cycle where they run their peak mileage. Consider this only if you’re at the elite level or have built up to the level of fitness required to run without a rest day.
- Some runners who run a very low weekly mileage at a very low intensity can also get away with not having rest days. This is typically the type of runners who runs 15 mins a day very slowly and sometimes even alternates running with walking. It’s his/her daily activity because other than this 15 mins, he/she just sits and works all day. The main goal of this type of runner is to get the health benefits of a low-moderate intensity cardio.
When To Take A Rest Day?
It really depends on your own schedule and preferences. But here’s a few things that could guide you in scheduling rest days.
As a general rule, your rest days should be scheduled strategically in a week. Back-to-back rest days could have a negative effect on performance. Each rest day should follow a training session, typically a hard one.
Some runners who take 3-4 rest days a week do the alternate day approach where they take a rest day after each training day.
If you want to take 2 rest days a week you can schedule your rest days every Thursday and Sunday (or whatever works best for you). This is the type of schedule I follow.
Those who rest only once a week can schedule their rest right after the hardest training session or every after 3 consecutive days.
Make running fit your schedule. Only you can find what works best for you.
Though scheduling a rest day is the best approach, there are times where you have to override it and take a rest day even if it’s supposed to be a training day. This usually happens when you’re experiencing signs of burnout or overtraining.
Though uncommon among recreational runners, professionals and elites have their fair share of experiences from overtraining. It is when your body tells you that it could no longer recover without some aid.
Hence, I usually aid my rest with a massage gun. My favorite is the TheraGun Mini. It’s light, quiet, and portable which allows me to take it anywhere and use it any time. I use it on my lower leg area and quads. It’s cheaper than the other TheraGuns. You can check the price on Amazon.
How to know if you’re overtrained? Healthline highlighted some signs of overtraining in another article.
- Decreased appetite
- Muscle soreness
- Feeling tired and sluggish
- Overuse injuries
- Decline in performance
- Disturbed sleep patterns
- Loss of motivation
When you’re overtraining, you take one step forward and two steps back. That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on these signs.
If you’re feeling stuck, lack of rest days may be the reason why you aren’t improving as a runner. You can check out the 9 other reasons in this article.
Will A Rest Day Ruin My Progress
Over the years I’ve met a lot of people who think taking a rest day will ruin his/her progress. I used to believe that was the case. I was young and there’s so much excitement around improving that I tried to take shortcuts and follow the “do more than the next guy” mentality not knowing that rest days are a part of the process.
Rest days won’t ruin progress. In fact, the only way for your body to adapt to these physiologic changes is through rest. Your body doesn’t improve during exercise, in contrast, exercise damages your body. It is during the rest period when your body repairs itself and becomes stronger.
So the next time you feel too excited to hit the pavement on your rest day, fight the urge. If you really can’t help it, do active rest days instead.
On Active Rest Days
Active rest days are one of my favorite ways to spend a rest day. The way to do this is by doing a low-intensity, low-impact exercise like swimming, cycling, or yoga on your supposed rest day.
According to a study conducted by the Center for Sports Medicine, researchers have found that there is a significant decrease in blood lactate concentration following an active rest day when compared to sports massage and full rest.
Now the activity that you do on your active rest doesn’t always have to be related to sports or fitness. Mowing your lawn, cleaning your house, taking a longer-than-usual walk to the grocery store, or taking your kids out to the park is also great ways to recover actively.
The key here is to take a break from high-intensity exercises or high-impact sports to allow your body to rest. That means, lifting in the gym, playing a full basketball game, or “running very slow” are not active rests.
Here are some of my favorite active rest activities:
- Walk 1-2 miles on a nearby beach stretch
- Cruising around town on my bike (I’m not even trying to sweat, I’m just using it for transportation)
- 30 min stretch
- Shoot around
- Throw frisbee disc
Like all things, running requires balance. Do it too little, you risk undertraining, do it too much, you risk overtraining. The best way to navigate through this is by seeking the help of a trained professional in your local area. He/she will be able to make the necessary assessment and come up with a plan to help you achieve your goals.
If, however, hiring a coach is not your priority, continue reading articles and studies about the sport. Runnersgetup.com is dedicated to answering your questions related to running.
My Recommended Gear
Hey, if you’re looking for the perfect running gear and you’re having a hard time choosing one, I’ve compiled a list of my favorites below.