Rest Day Is the Most Important Day for Runners
Recovery isn’t just physical, it’s mental.
Some shiver in ice baths. Others zip into waist-high inflatable boots, torture themselves on foam rollers, or wave lasers over sore ankles and knees. Walk into Chicago’s EDGE Athlete Lounge mid-morning on a weekend, and you’ll find a happy, chattering crowd of athletes not working out.
In fact, they’ve paid a monthly membership fee of more than $100 for the pleasure. Now, EDGE does offer marathon-training groups, strength classes, and personal training, and you can book time on bike trainers or high-end Woodway treadmills. But as the name suggests, the biggest draw is the recovery tools—things like the comfy leather chairs that dominate the main space, where athletes read, check emails, and watch sports or the news on a flat-screen TV as they let their bodies rest and repair the damage they’ve inflicted during training.
Runner and coach Katie O’Connor found EDGE about two years ago when she hurt her ankle training for the Boston Marathon. “My husband jokes that I’m kinda like Humpty Dumpty—someone should bubble wrap me,” she says. “I’ve had every injury under the sun, I feel like. When I can’t run, I’m a miserable person to be around.”
She’s been happily injury-free since joining EDGE, despite running four days a week and training for marathons and ultramarathons, distances of longer than 26.2 miles. She had a baby in 2011 and will turn 40 in January, but she’s now logging more miles than she did in her 20s—including long training runs of up to 30 miles.
“Making the recovery component just as important as a training day has literally changed my running career,” she says. Stories like hers don’t surprise trail runner and coach David Roche—who, together with his wife Megan, guides the training of some of the world’s best trail and ultrarunners. That includes champions of prestigious races like the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and the Leadville Trail 100.
When runners sign up for the Roches’ team, "Some Work, All Play," they commit to balancing their training. “It’s a dogmatic rule with the athletes that we coach that everyone is taking a rest day every week, even if they’re the best runner in the sport,” Roche says. “It’s just a fact of life, like the sun rising. You take your rest day every week.” And that’s complete rest—no easy running, no running period, not even cross-training like cycling or swimming.
The time off serves multiple purposes, he says. There’s the straightforward and obvious, that pushing too hard in any sport or physical activity can lead to injury and burnout. A day off helps you come back to training a little fresher, feeling ready to take on the next workout.
But there’s a reason that often resonates more with the hyper-motivated athletes he coaches: adaptation. When you crush a long run or fast repeats on a track, you’re essentially breaking down your body—depleting your muscles’ energy stores, cranking out stress hormones like cortisol and waste products that cause fatigue, even creating tiny micro-tears within the muscles themselves (that’s why you feel sore later).
It’s a controlled stress, but a stress nonetheless, and one that produces inflammation, says Becca Rodriguez, a San Diego-based sports medicine physician who recently served as the medical director for Team USA’s high performance center at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. In response to that inflammation, the machine you inhabit makes modifications—deep down to the cellular level—that enable you to work harder, faster, and more efficiently the next time. In the short term, you’ll rehydrate and replenish the fuel and fluids your muscles need to contract, flush out waste products, and rebalance your hormones.
Over days and weeks of training, you’ll undergo more significant changes—such as the strengthening of bones and ligaments and the sprouting of new power-producing mitochondria in your muscle cells—that make you better at both running and recovering. But that’s only if you’ve given your body a chance to catch up.
“The analogy I’ve always enjoyed is the sponge,” Roche says. “You put a sponge under the sink and it fills with water. At a certain point it can’t fill up with any more water and you have to wring it out. The rest days are that wring-out period which allow you to absorb another batch of training.”
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The basic equation of stress plus rest converting to growth applies to just about any type of physical training—or really, any other pursuit in life, as authors Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness point out in their recent book Peak Performance.
But the rest portion is even more of a priority for distance runners due to repeated impact. For every hour you stride, your feet will slam into the ground about 10,000 times—with a force that, if not balanced out with time off your feet, can contribute to overuse injuries like tendinopathy and stress fractures, says Ryan Verchota, a long-distance runner and sports chiropractor who treats patients at Active Body Chiropractic in Chicago.
“You want to load those tissues enough to adapt, but not too much to cause damage,” he says. “That threshold is different in different people; I think people need to find what they’re able to handle on an individual level, and stay below it.”
One day per week of rest works for many athletes, but it might not be enough for everyone—newer, over-40, and injury-prone runners may need more, Roche says. To make sure you’re getting it just right, stay alert for warning signs you’re overtraining and under-recovering. Besides injuries, these include fatigue, decreasing performance, and mood changes, like feeling bummed out or frustrated, Rodriguez says.
Roche has identified a few other, specific red flags in his runners, including extending your legs and crunching your quads when you sleep, feeling your heart beat a little abnormally in your ears at night, and failing the stair test. “It’s okay to be little tired going up stairs after a workout,” he says. “But if you’re tired going up stairs, like, most of the time, then you need to back off training and rest days are a way to do that.”
Besides taking a breather, there are a few other things you can do to maintain your equilibrium. Proper nutrition, hydration, and enough sleep promote recovery and adaptation too, Rodriguez says. Tools like foam rollers, which are standard equipment for Roche’s runners—release tension and promote blood flow, which can speed the process along. And because your body has a finite set of resources to handle all stressors, limiting stress (or at least finding ways to cope with it, such as deep breathing) in the rest of your life helps too, Roche and Verchota both say.
The essentiality of rest and recovery is an idea that’s clearly catching on. One of Roche’s athletes—elite obstacle course racer Amelia Boone, who has a different perspective on rest after spending more than a year recovering from stress fractures—even helped launch a social media campaign to celebrate it. (Check out #restdaybrags and you’ll see photos of athletes knitting or snuggling dogs on the couch, refueling with donuts and beer, and brandishing activity-tracking watches with comically low step counts.) It’s a refreshing counterbalance to the steady stream of race photos and #nodaysoff braggadocio you’ll normally find in the feeds of serious competitors.
Essentially, they’ve created a virtual lounge not unlike the real-life one at EDGE, which O’Connor says has also proved pivotal in her athletic success. Finding a group of athletes to share things like obstacles and recovery protocols in addition to personal-bests and training triumphs has enabled her to reach far beyond what she thought possible—she’s now targeting a 50-mile race next year.
“Recovery isn’t just physical, it's the mental component,” she says. “Being a part of this community—there are people who are like-minded to you that have similar goals and have had similar setbacks. But then you see them reaching another goal and that makes you want to set something different.”
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