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Running in Neutral Gear: The Importance of Rest for Runners

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As a regular runner or while in the midst of training for a big upcoming race a doubt that creeps into your mind is taking a day off. Many runners believe that running every day, day after day, is the best way to improve your performance levels. Apologies for bursting this bubble – but, it isn’t true! The belief of running every day is supported by the idea that regular activity brings practice and opportunity into play to build on endurance, strength, and speed. A rest day is often met with uncertainty and hesitation as the common misconception is that it will interfere with their hard earned fitness levels. This being said, know that recovering and rest are two of the most underrated factors of training, and putting one foot in front of the other isn’t the only way of progressing forward. The importance of rest for runners is pretty straightforward – the body needs to recuperate and improve. 

Importance of Rest for Runners

Rest days do play an integral part of training since without scheduling rest days in training, you’re putting yourself at a risk of running straight into issues and injuries because you’ve overtrained and overstrained yourself. Injuries like stress fractures and shin splints will make an appearance if as a runner you’re stressing your body too much and not giving it the proper time to recover or enough running rest days per week. Remember, once you’ve fallen prone to these types of injuries, it isn’t easy to snap back into shape. What’s more is that they call for a lengthy off-period, where you’ll have to give up running itself in order to heal fully and properly. And what good could reaching such a stage possibly do? 

Anyone can train hard. Do you have the discipline to recover? - Lauren Fleshman

Generally, it would take around two weeks of non-activity for any noticeable changes in your performance levels to start cropping up. This means, there’s absolutely no harm in taking a day or two of recovery, but it surely could be in the best of interests. Let’s delve into a few facts which are direct pointers of the importance of rest for runners. 

1. Good Joint Health

As a runner, your joints are dealing with impacts on a constant basis. Each run means your hips, knees, and ankles are taking the brunt of this activity. A rest day will most certainly give them the time they need to recover and heal from this repetitive impact. If you neglect to give them this time off, you’ll soon notice sore and swollen or inflamed joints cropping up. 

importance of rest for runners
Include rest days for good joint health

2. Increases Stamina and Endurance

Your progress or your improvement actually takes place during the resting time contrary to the common belief that it happens on the day of training. Speaking scientifically, training days are breaking down the muscle fibers and resting days are strengthening while repairing these same muscles. This leads to an increase in strength, speed, and endurance. The rest day is when your body concentrates on absorbing all the training you’ve put in place, putting psychological adaptations into gear, helping you get fitter in the bargain.     

3. Reduces the Risk of Injury

Rest days lowers the possibilities of injuries and that’s why experts emphasis on the importance of rest for runners. Most of the injuries that runners complain of are results of overstressing or overusing your body’s muscles and tissues. It’s an obvious chain reaction, wear and tear – running or training causes minor damages on a regular basis and without time to rest it out or recover adequately, you’re inviting injuries to your body.    

4. Boosting Mental Ability

Importance of rest for runners doesn’t only cover recharging yourself physically, but mentally as well. To put your mind to rest, first off, get comfortable with the idea of taking a rest day. A rest day will psychologically trigger a desire to train more and with new bursts of energy. Mental fatigue can set you back a few steps the same way that physical fatigue can, so you need to prevent yourself from facing a burnout. What’s more, you can use the off time to indulge in some other activities and interests, give yourself a more well-rounded approach. 

5. A Day-off for the Immune system

Your immune system is constantly running to provide the resources to your body to take your training to the next level – it helps prevent, maintain, repair and cure all the impact the body is being constantly put through. And like any other machinery, the immune system too can go into overdrive and heat up resulting in inefficiency. Without that period of recovery, your immune system will lag behind in repairing and maintaining your body leading to injuries. 

6. A Good Night’s Rest

Adequate recovery will help put in and maintain a healthy sleep cycle. When the body is put through constant action like running regularly it could achieve a state of high alert and restlessness making it difficult to unwind and fall off to sleep at night. An increase in your resting heart rate is one of the most important signs that you need rest, that your body needs some time off. Remember, it could lead to a vicious cycle, lack of sleep could lead to physical and mental fatigue, which could decrease your productivity and performance levels. 

7. Train Smarter

Once you accept that resting is an important part of your training process, you’ll realize that your training is more of smart work than hard work. You’ll replace overtraining fatigue with rest and end up with consistency in training. You’ll replace continuous training with rest days and end up with better absorption and adaptation to the training. This change in your running will bring about a higher level of performance and will give you greater satisfaction. 

benefits of running
Benefits of running when you include rest days (source)

Scheduling Rest Days in Training

As there are different ways of training, there are different options of pencilling in rest days into a training calendar. Among the most obvious of these choices is when there is no running and no form of other exercises on that day as well. These types of days ensure complete rest for the runner with a chance to allow the body to recover by allowing to rest your legs after running. The amount of recovery time or a number of rest days could vary from runner to runner and the response of the body to any exercise session, no matter a normal or a race training exercise. While some might require two to three days running rest days per week for muscle recovery, some runners find that their body is able to recover with a single day of rest in the week. 

One thing can be agreed upon mutually though, that a rest day following an extremely hard workout day could be extremely beneficial since such workouts are very taxing on the body and a day of rest would go far in allowing the body a break to bounce back into shape. A general following is that the higher the amount of intensity of an exercise session, the lighter will be its following recovery. Of course, down the line, as your body gets conditioned to performing such exercises, then active recovery will come into the picture more appropriately. 

Bringing us to the second option of resting – active recovery. These rest days are scheduled into the training calendar which allows a different and lower impact forms of exercises – a way to cross train – basically an activity unrelated to running in itself. While they still involve performing an activity, they fall under the category of rest days since they give the muscles and the joints that are commonly used for running, a chance to take a break. Active recovery is exercising at a lower level of intensity than your usual training, which still promotes movement, boosts flexibility and eliminates the by-products of training responsible for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS. Few exercises that could be considered good methods of active recovery are swimming, light jogging, walking, stretching, yoga, foam rolling, massage etc. 

Another pathway to go is ‘periodising’ your rest. This means that after a specified time period of say two to three weeks of extensive training, you reduce the volume and intensity of the training. This is another effective way of not only ensuring that your body rests, but that it also gets a chance to absorb the effects of the previous days’ extensive workout. 

importance of rest day
Allot rest days during your training (source)

Recovery for Runners 

If you’re working with a specifically planned training program, then your coach or an exercise physiologist is more than capable of planning your rest days for you, but if you aren’t you can always work with an initial tentative plan and taking some of the factors into consideration, can tweak when and how you take your rest days. There are also some pre-planned schedules available on online forums which can be used as a base yourself and customized as per your body type and training type. Apart from just factoring in a rest period for yourself, you should also pay attention to some of the tangents – like the correct nutritional intake, proper hydration techniques and getting an adequate amount of sleep hours. 

If you feel you’re coming down with a cold or the flu, adequate rest becomes all the more important, because your immune system is already working the clock, and fatigue will set in sooner – neglecting taking care could lead to injuring yourself in the bargain. The same goes for the lady runners who have a menstrual cycle to take into consideration – your immune system is already being pushed, leaving you with lesser resources to utilize to recover from training, hence, rest. It might be a harder decision for many people, who don’t like letting go of the reins for even a single day, but it’s all its worth…. You need to quit training hard and start training smart.

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