Taking a rest day from running seems so easy – it’s a day off from running. And it is just that easy… and it isn’t.
Runners fall into one of two camps: Those who love rest days and those who hate them.
Personally, I love them. I’ve used the Hal Higdon Novice 2 marathon training plan as the basis of my marathon training for over a decade, largely because it has two rest days per week.
I like to give my brain and my body rest and a change of pace. For me, taking the occasional day off makes coming back to running feel like more of a treat.
Whenever I read a story of a run streaker who has run every day for years (or decades), I wonder why anyone would want to do that. And I say that as some who runs ultramarathons and has run for over 10 hours at a single stretch… why don’t you want to rest?
But I get it.
For some runners, rest can be hard. They may feel like they’ll lose their hard-earned gains or their fitness. Or that a rest day will start them down a slippery slope of skipping runs and slacking off.
When being a runner is part of your identity, taking it away, even if it’s only for a day, could be viewed as taking away part of who you are.
But all runners should rest.
Rest Day Myths
Rest Days are Slacking Off
A few years ago, I read an article in Trail Runner magazine with the best pieces of advice elite runners have ever received (that specific article is no longer available, or I would’ve linked it).
One section really stuck with me:
“Rest is part of training, not avoiding training.”
You work your body hard during tough speed workouts or long runs. When you really push your body, you break down your muscles. Rest days are when you actually get stronger. As you rest, your muscle fibers rebuild, stronger than before.
When a rest day shows up on your training plan, you aren’t failing as a runner if you rest. A ‘rest day’ is your assignment for the day and is just as important to your training as any long run or track workout.
There are rest days built into the Tour de France. If those guys can take a day off, so can you.
Rest Days Are Passive and Should Be Spent Sitting With Your Feet Up
Rest days don’t mean ‘do nothing’. They aren’t (or shouldn’t be, at least) passive.
Depending on your temperament and your training plan – what a ‘rest day’ is to you may vary. If your body demands it, a rest day could be a day of total rest, but more often than not, rest days should be days of active recovery with an easy (EASY!) run (think a run at a rate of perceived exertion of 2-3, at most), a walk, or easy cross training.
Active recovery should be thought of as focused movement without impact or stress. It’s not the time or place for tests of fitness or strength.
Rest and active recovery are different things, and you should be mindful of which you are doing, but for the purposes of this post, I’m using the term ‘rest day’ to include both days of no running (rest) or an easy run (active recovery).
Some coaches consider mobility work like yoga and foam rolling cross training, but I think these are essential parts of all rest days (more on this in a second).
How To Rest Day
Have a Rest Day Routine
Most successful and consistent runners have a routine they use on running days.
Why should rest days be any different?
Don’t think of your rest day as a void – as a day where you aren’t running – think of it in terms of what you will be doing, and create a rest day routine. That you’ll do X mobility routine at Y time, then walk for 30 minutes and review your training journal, for example.
Listen To Your Body
So should you totally rest or do an easy run on your rest day? I can’t tell you that, but if you pay attention, your body will tell you what it needs.
If your runs feel totally blah and you can’t seem to push yourself to your (appropriate) limits on your hard run days, you may be pushing yourself too hard and you’d benefit from a rest day, and the day should be more on the side of ‘rest’ than ‘active’.
But also – rest before you think you need it. Like hydration on a long run, by the time you notice the need, you are probably overdue.
Stay (a little bit) Active
If you go cold turkey with your movement and never move from the couch on a rest day, you’ll probably stiffen up and end up feeling worse.
Even on a total rest day without running, you should stretch or do some easy yoga or foam rolling. Take a walk around the neighborhood to keep your blood flowing.
As you walk or stretch, take many deep breaths and fill your lungs.
And always stay hydrated!
If it’s a thing you do, rest days are the perfect time to do body work like heat or ice therapy or getting a sports massage.
Rest days are also a great day to catch up.
- What is working in your running and your training, and what isn’t?
- Is there anything you should change in your training based on what is and isn’t working?
- Are there any upcoming events that might make running more of a challenge (like upcoming travel)? Make changes now to your training plan to minimize the impact of those events.
And always, on rest days and on active days, be kind to yourself and to your body.