Rest…It’s Your Most Important Day Of The Week
One of the surprising things about coaching is that more challenging than coaxing people out the door to get their run in, it’s much harder to hold a motivated athlete back and get them to rest. Many athletes struggle with feeling lazy or guilty about taking rest days, and feel like every moment they’re chilling on the couch is a missed training opportunity. Counterintuitively, that couch time is the most important part of your training week.
Stress + rest = adaptation.
Stress + stress + stress^more stress = total mental and physical implosion.
Training without resting is like eating without digesting. Without proper rest and recovery, your training would be pointless and risky. So, kick your feet up and settle in for some couch time while we dive into the why behind rest days.
Let’s Break It Down
Running breaks you down (both literally and metaphorically). It happens on the cellular level all the way up to systems like muscles, organs and even your brain. If you consistently train hard, that breakdown will accumulate until your performance plateaus, or worse – sends you right off a training cliff of diminishing returns. Proper rest and recovery let the body adapt to minor breakdowns before they become major blow-ups. Those adaptations, given rest and time, are what produce gains.
Unlike swimming, cycling or skiing, running involves impact forces that break down your body during training. A small amount of impact is actually good for your bones, it increases cellular turnover and forces the bone to remodel with stronger structures. Those adaptations only happen with rest, and if you never give your bones time to repair, you could be headed for a stress fracture.
Tendons also need rest. Tendons are what connect the muscle to the bone and work constantly to help keep your body in motion. Blood doesn’t travel to your tendons as easily as it does to your muscles, so they take longer to repair. If you’re consistently pounding your tendons, that can create chronic problems like tendonitis (inflammation from overuse). Running also creates microscopic tears in your muscles. Your body responds by rebuilding those muscles stronger than ever, but that only happens with time off. There’s no point in tearing tiny holes in your muscles that you don’t plan on fixing.
Consistent training makes it tough to keep glycogen stores stocked and ready to roll. Glycogen burns fast (perfect fuel for running!) but refills slow. Rest days let your body refill the energy tank and avoid low energy availability and relative energy deficiency syndrome, or REDs. Think of rest days as your body’s chance to gas-up in a big way, and eat plenty of calories. Some people might be tempted to restrict calories on a rest day. DO NOT. Tying your caloric intake to your activity level is a slippery slope to disordered eating and can lead to physiological and psychological challenges down the road. Food is not earned through exercise. Eat that rest-day pizza.
Stress And Adaptation
Running might feel like a stress release mentally, but your body can’t tell the difference between a run to clear your mind, and running to escape a tiger. In both instances, running prompts your body to pump out cortisol, a stress hormone produced in the adrenal glands. Cortisol plays a critical role in regulating glucose concentration in blood. Chronic exposure to cortisol (whether from training, work or just being alive in the 21st century) undermines athletic performance, cognitive function and even body composition (this is one of the key reasons that we recommend meditation for high-stress athletes daily).
This is also the reason that we wouldn’t consider skipping a run to work a 14-hour hospital shift a rest day. Rest days give your adrenal glands and your legs a break. Over time, it’s better to be overly cautious and err on the side of rest (especially during high-stress times, for instance, a global pandemic) than to push the limits of your stress.
The best way to stop productive adaptation is to consistently under-recover. An athlete who rests a bit more than they should will, over time, outperform an athlete who trains a little bit more than they should. If I was a gambling gal, I’d put my money on Rest Day Rick.
This Is Your Brain On Rest
One of the most important functions of rest days is that they help prevent burnout. They give us time away from the sport we love to re-invest and re-focus on mindfulness and self-care, which are just as important to your long-term development as an athlete, and more importantly, as a human person.
Our culture constantly bombards us with messaging that tells us that we always need to do more. #NoDaysOff #NoPainNoGain. Those messages prey on our deepest insecurities that we may not be enough, and that we need to constantly be doing more if not the most to reach our potential. We feel guilty taking a day off when we see people throwing up killer running streaks on Strava. We might think “What am I doing, sitting on the couch when others are out there training?”.
That, to be frank, is utter garbage. You are enough, as you are, right now. And you’ll continue to improve if you give yourself, and your body, empty space to grow in with sufficient rest. Block out any noise that tells you that you’re not good enough, or that you need to earn rest. Take a rest day from Strava, or from your training log. Celebrate your #RestDayBrags. The best athletes are the ones that take their rest days as seriously as they do their training days and can attack Hulu intervals or a burrito with the same passion and enthusiasm that they bring to their workouts.
Your brain might be telling you that you’re being lazy, but you need to shut that shiz right down. While you’re chilling on the couch with a Netflix marathon, your body is actually doing the work that gives your training meaning by rebuilding and adapting. Without rest, most of your training would be irrelevant. Hard work washed down the drain of under-recovery. Give it meaning by taking a day off.