Taking time off from running, even if it’s just one day, can be a lot tougher than it sounds. We tend to focus on the positive aspects of the sport, and rightfully so: Running allows us to get outside, bust stress, strengthen our muscles, fuel creativity, and be competitive—and all those endorphins help improve our moods and reign in our crankiness. But as much as those miles benefit us, they can also hurt us if we aren’t mindful about resting.
The fact is, not running is just as important as fitting in that long run. Rest days help strengthen your body, sharpen your focus, and reinvigorate your spirit so that you actually want to keep training.
'Rest is not a four-letter word to be ignored,' says Kevin Vincent, M.D., Ph.D., director of the University of Florida Running Medicine Clinic. 'The big reason you need it is recovery and recuperation. Every time you run, your body has to adapt to get stronger.'
That’s because when you run, you aren’t just building stamina and strength, you’re also breaking your body down, causing a tiny amount of tissue damage. Allowing yourself time to recover afterward is what makes it possible for you to come back better next week, next month, next race.
'As much as athletes focus on their volume of training and the speed at which they do workouts, what they do outside of running is equally important to becoming stronger and more resilient in the future,' says Adam Tenforde, M.D., assistant professor of physical medicine and rehab at Harvard University and former All-American distance runner at Stanford.
Bonnie Marks, Psy.D., staff psychologist at the NYU Sports Performance Centre, agrees. 'If you don’t have time to recharge, it can lead to staleness and general apathy about training.'
In other words, rest right, and you’ll run faster and be healthier. Skip it, and you might be forced to take time off due to an injury. Here’s exactly why you need to take a break sometimes to build a stronger—more rested—you.
1. Your muscles can bounce back.
When you run (or do any exercise), you create microscopic tears in your muscle fibres, and your body likes those about as much as you like trying to open a sweaty GU packet. So it responds by rebuilding your muscles stronger, in preparation for the next session. The catch: That response only happens with time off. Vincent says that, depending on the length and intensity of your workout, the body needs a minimum of 36 to 48 hours to reboot. Without it, the body has no opportunity to rebuild and strengthen muscles; they just continue to break down. That negates all the hard work you put in.
2. You avoid stress fractures.
If you’re trying to sidestep an injury (really, who isn’t?), rest is crucial. Running is great for your bones—the impact stresses the bone tissue, and just like a muscle, that increases cell turnover and forces the bone to remodel with stronger structures, says Vincent. 'But if you run today, tomorrow, and the next day, it never has time to fully repair.' Eventually, you could be looking at a stress fracture—and a season on the sidelines.
Even if you do give yourself a rest day off from running each week, you should still be conscious of varying your speed and intensity throughout the week. For example, if you do hard track intervals on Monday, you should run at an easy pace on Tuesday. While your bones are still undergoing stress on Tuesday’s run, the impact is much less than the powerful force they absorbed on the track, so repairs can still happen. But the key to a recovery run is to do it at a recovery pace—the more you push the speed, the more shock your bones absorb, and the weaker they’ll be when you try to go fast again.
3. Tight tendons are protected.
Tendons are connective tissues that hold the muscle to bone, so they work constantly as the body moves. But blood doesn’t get to them easily, so they take longer to repair than tissues that have higher vascularity (like muscles), explains Vincent. If they don’t get that time, the constant pounding can cause chronic damage, like tendinitis—which is inflammation from overuse.
4. Your brain has time to chill.
Yes, running is a form of stress relief. But every time you lace up, it increases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. Why? 'The body doesn’t know if you’re running away from danger or if you’re running for fun,' says Vincent.
That cortisol bump can cause mood issues, irritability, sleep problems, and other health issues if stress levels are chronically high, says Marks. Think of it like a scale: Overtrain, and you’ve tipped too far in one direction; schedule regular rest days, and you’re back in balance.
5. You can spend more time with family and friends.
While taking a rest day has many physical benefits, it also has several mental ones. Chiefly among them: Rest days grant you valuable time to spend with the family and friends you sometimes ditch to get your mileage in. While these folks are often our biggest fans—and sometimes even our running partners—they’ll probably appreciate a weekend morning that doesn’t involve you lacing up and sneaking out the door for a run.
Plus, if you often run alone, socialising with others can give you a valuable mental boost, especially when you’re nervous for a big race or bumming about a recent performance. Rather than ruminating on negative thoughts during a solo run, you might go on an easy hike with friends or make dinner with your family, making sure to turn your full attention to the people and task at hand. That way, the next time you run, your mind will be fresh, your loved ones will know you care, and you’ll have happier memories to outweigh any bad race results.
6. You can try a new activity.
There’s some debate about how much rest is required on a rest day. While some runners are healthiest when they take rest days completely off from exercise—cross-training included—others prefer to do non-running activities on their rest days.
If you fall into the latter group, you should be mindful of taking it easy in your exercise of choice. For instance, a leisurely, low-impact bike ride is a great way to flush out sore legs and tired feet, but if it turns into an intense, hilly session, your quads and glutes might be shot before your running week even begins. Gentler exercises like swimming and yoga are great choices for a rest day, as they stretch you out, force you to control your breathing, and strengthen your bones and muscles without stressing them too much.
For those who recover best by completely refraining from exercise, use the day to explore a new hobby or catch up on a project you’ve been neglecting. Running tends to take up a lot of our free time—especially when we’re training for a marathon—and unfortunately, when we’re also juggling work and family duties, other activities take a backseat. So on your rest day, read that book. Write that essay. Plant that garden. Taking some time out of your trainers will do your body and mind good.
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