The Basics of Running: The Importance of Rest

It is not an easy concept for new runners to understand.  The importance of rest for runners!

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes that new runners make is not taking enough rest or “downtime” between long training segments or after races.  I understand how putting your training on pause may seem counter-intuitive after a great race or long training segment.  I am sure if you are likely myself — You want to capitalize on your fitness and continue to set new person records!  At the same time, if you are anything like my husband — after a disappointing race the last thing on your mind is resting — and all you are is focused on how you want revenge and you are anxious to get back on that starting line!

Many runners have Type-A personalities and taking an unnecessary day off — or worse yet a full week off — is about an enjoyable as a trip to the dentist for a root canal. Many runners have an irrational fear that missing a few runs will dramatically diminish their fitness and that take five to seven days off will completely ruin all the hard work they have put in over the past year or months.

Unfortunately, it is the mistake of not resting enough after a big race or a long training segment that can ultimately lead to plateaus in training and stagnant race results.  Not only does resting for seven to 10 days have little negative impact on your current fitness levels, the long-term gains you will see will enable you to continue to make consistent progress year and year without over training.

Why You Need Downtime & Rest After Races

It does not matter if your main training focus was a big marathon or if you just finished a long term training plan that included a variety of short races.  Your body needs an extended period of rest to fully recover from and absorb the months of training you have put in.  Failing to take the necessary downtime to fully recover will virtually ensure you plateau in your training.

Because shorter racing segments can vary from runner to runner, measuring the cumulative training effect and subsequent stress to the body is difficult. However, the marathon distance provides a constant variable that runners can use to measure how specific physiological systems are damaged during just one race.

The Science of Why You Need Downtime & Rest

Skeletal Muscle – One scientific study looked at the damage done to the calf muscles during a marathon race and concluded that both the intensive training for and the marathon itself, induce inflammation and muscle fiber necrosis that significantly impaired muscle power and durability. The study makes it clear that your muscles are undoubtedly weakened and they need extensive recovery before returning to full training.  Given this study also examined calf muscles during an extended training block, the need for downtime also applies to rigorous training plans.

Cellular Damage – Cellular damage post marathon is best measured by the presence and production of creatinie kinase (CK) – a marker that indicated damage to skeletal and myocardial tissue — and increased myoglobin levels in the blood stream.  One study concluded that CK damage persisted more than 7 days post marathon while another study discovered the presence of myoblogin in the bloodstream for 3-4 days post race. Unlike muscle soreness, these markers of hard training and racing are not always noticeable.  This is why you need to take downtime after a long training place or a marathon, even if you do not feel sore!

Immune System – Finally, studies have shown that the immune system is severely compromised after running the marathon distance, which increases the risk of contracting colds and the flu. A suppressed immune system is one of the major causes of over training.  Therefore, skipping a much needed rest period could lead to interrupted training down the road, which could significantly derail your overall long-term goals.

Why Taking Downtime Will Not Negatively Affect Your Fitness 

It is not hard to persuade runners into believing that a marathon or long training places are hard and difficult on the body.  However, it is quite another to convince that same runner that taking seven to 10 days off to rest up will not hurt their fitness.  While it may seam counter-intuitive, research has proven that resting for seven to 10 days will not significantly diminish their fitness levels. 

How Long Should You Plan to Rest

Most coaches and elite runners will suggest you should take off one week after a 5k training cycle, seven to 10 days off after a 10k or half marathon, and a full two weeks off after a marathon.  I know, I know — It might sound like you would be holding yourself back by being so cautious, but trust me — your long term goals and progression will actually benefit from the rest.

You should also work on incorporating rest into your training program.  The amount of rest you require will vary depending on a number of different factors.  Some runners find that taking as little as one day off each week is enough for them to allow their bodies to recover — while other runners find they need to take 2 or 3 days off each week in order to allow their muscles to recovery properly. Especially for newer runners, you will most likely find rest days are extremely beneficial the day after an extremely hard workout such a speed training, interval training, or hill training.

Good luck at your upcoming race and do not forget to schedule a little rest and relaxation time afterward.

Note: Thank you to Runner’s World & Active.com for help with some of the scientific data! 

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