Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Res(pec)t Your Body

Of course, no elite distance runner reaches the olympic marathon trials by laying around on the couch all day. However, rest does play a very underestimated role in improvement, especially as your training volume and intensity increase. If you don't already, incorporating one day of rest (or at least very low-impact exercise) per week would be a good idea. Not only would it aid in recovery and hence, performance, but it would also reduce the risk of injury and overtraining.

In our sport, approximately sixty-five percent of runners are injured annually as the prevalence of injuries is about 1 per 100 workouts ('Incidence and Severity of Injury Following Aerobic Training Programs Emphasising Running, Racewalking, or Step Aerobics,' Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 25(5), p. S81, 1993). It is estimated that runners are forced to sit out of 5-10% of their workouts as a result of an injury, which is a rather large amount of time spent out of commission.

Anybody who wants to miss out on 5-10% of their workouts, raise your hand at the keyboard. Anyone? Anyone? It's true that no dedicated athlete wants to sit out on the sidelines, counting down the seconds until they can rejoin the sport they once knew and loved. But rest days and recovery, which should become more numerous as you pass the age of forty, can help keep your body healthy. When you run every consecutive day, you risk being forced to discontinue activity for an even greater period of time than you would have spent cumulatively over your rest days. And rest days aren't just for the recreational runner - even the Kenyan elites take them!

Sometimes, even if one is not "scheduled" to rest on any given day, a day off to recover from the demands of exercise and life in general can be very beneficial. According to the Runner's World website, you can gauge when to rest based on your pulse. First you must know what your "average" pulse is. Then you can find your pulse before getting out of bed in the morning, and if it's 20% higher than normal, your body is telling you it needs a break.

One must also make the important distinction between a "rest" versus an "easy" day. A rest day entails little to no exercise, stretching, upper body weight lifting, and/or low-impact activities such as swimming, walking, or yoga. For runners especially, it is important to give the legs time to recover from the training demanded of them the other 6 days of the week. Easy days, on the other hand, are days in which a runner does a lower intensity, less demanding workout, typically following a day of a hard training session such as speedwork. In essence, an easy day allows the body to repair muscle tissue on the microscopic level, whereas rest days give the muscles a chance to more fully repair themselves from larger-scale damage.

There is no need to worry about losing fitness over the course of one, two, or even three days off. The world will not stop turning, fall off its axis, and drift off into outer space. Although, much more than that - which injuries usually require to completely heal - will unfortunately be detrimental to your performance. For every week of no exercise, it takes approximately two weeks of training to make up for lost fitness.

Injury prevention is key. But when the ten-percent-increase-per-week rule and proper athletic footwear fail, giving way to an injury despite all proactive measures, rest is crucial. Sometimes we runners can be rather stupid - yes, including myself - by trying to train through an injury or skimp on complete injury recovery time for fear of losing the the fitness for which we give our blood, sweat, and tears. Interestingly, 50% of injuries are of the recurring variety; that is, those that were not properly taken care of and fully healed. The voice inside us, that source of great success, can also become the source of great harm if left uncontrolled. I highly disagree with the phrase, "No pain, no gain," when it comes to injuries. Instead, refrain from pain.

The moral of the story? R-E-S-P-E-C-T your body, and it will do so in return.


  1. great post about the importance of rest and active-recovery! i don't seem to have too hard of a time finding the time to take a day off myself. ;) i have been working on the whole "taking a day or two off now to avoid taking a week or 2 off later" theory; i used to be terrible at running through pain and making it worse. love the last comic!

  2. Very nice post, once again, Breadcrumb Runner!
    So true, so true. Not only has taking sufficient rest days even while in marathon training helped to prevent significant injuries. It's also helped to make me faster! So it's a win-win situation! Thanks for the reminder.

  3. I think we have ALL learned this lesson the hard way. Excellent advice! (Love the pictures, too.)

  4. Thanks for the inspiration (and the comment!). I hope to continue on my running journey!