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Rest Days are Key to Staying Healthy

Planning a full rest day into your routine can actually make you a better runner. Here's how it works.

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Whether training for your next marathon or your first 5K, there is something crucial that can sometimes be neglected by women with a lot of ambition—rest (especially in the form of one full rest day).

When rest is neglected, training suffers. Adequate rest and nutrition throughout any training process are the best ways to ensure not only performance, but overall good health and injury prevention. According to the 2020 National Runner Survey, half of all respondents had an injury that kept them from running for four or more days in the last 12 months.

Fitting in rest days are crucial to keeping your body going in the long run. “It’s extra time to allow for all the, essentially, mechanical repair to go on in the body; production of collagen to repair tendons, muscles, bones, all those tissues taking some breakdown in normal exercise,” says Robert Wayner, PT, DPT, and director of the Ohio Center for Running Performance. A rest day also allows the body to build energy stores back up. “We know that our athletes, over a six-day training period, they may start the week off with full tanks and really good energy balance. But as the week wears on then, especially since some of their workouts are more demanding than others, those more demanding ones are going to take a longer period of time to essentially recoup from caloric energy-wise,” he says. One consequence of continually skipping the rest day and not allowing energy stores to build back up is developing Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) that Wayner says he sees runners fall into inadvertently.

A lot of runners feel guilt around taking a rest day, which comes as a result of a society that glorifies productivity and hyper-competitiveness. Those feelings are especially felt by women who try to ‘do it all.’ The reality is that you cannot train to your full potential if you never let off the gas. Eventually something will break down. For that reason, a group of runners created an Instagram account dedicated solely to idealizing rest where they show how runners like Colleen Quigley, Amelia Boone, or Molly Seidel spend their rest days.

It’s also important to note that it is possible to take too many rest days, which can leave you unprepared on race day or just plateaued in your training. “You need a consistent stress to progress,” says Wayner. That stress needs to be added gradually with adequate (not too much and not too little) recovery time built in.

How to Take a Rest Day

Knowing when to take a day off is a personal concept for every runner that really depends on training load, mental and physical stress levels, and individual running goals. It’s important to listen to your body and respond to both emotional and physical cues that you need more rest. Wayner offers a few guidelines to help runners figure out how to make rest work for them.

For beginners or runners just returning from an injury, he recommends scheduling in a few rest days per week. “For those individuals, I’d schedule it in so that you have a period of stress and you have a full recovery,” he says. This aligns with most couch to 5k programs that start out with three days of running per week with a rest day in between each or this beginner plan that starts with two rest days a week, two cross-training days, and three running days.

For experienced runners who are capable of running daily, he recommends letting your body tell you when it’s time for a rest day. “If I get to the point where I’m waking up with stiffness or soreness and I go through a dynamic warm-up routine and that stiffness and soreness doesn’t go away until I’m well into the run, then it’s time for a day off,” he gives as an example. Rest days should be utilized whenever the body is unable to recover in the normal 24 to 48 hours.

But what you should you do on a rest day? Go for a walk, a hike, explore other hobbies, read a book, spend time with family, or focus on cross-training. Do whatever you need to recharge. But keep your sleep and nutrition the same as you would on training days, says Wayner. Skimping in either of those two areas will impede your ability to recover fully.

Rest days should also be considered mental health days. Even if you absolutely love running, sometimes just trying to squeeze it into the day can be stressful. Taking a day off can keep you loving the sport for a long time. “I think about our competitive runners who are running six to seven days a week. Sometimes that off day is just so you don’t get burnt out,” says Wayner. “You can come back to the next week of running, ready to tackle whatever it is you’re going to do.”