I have a love-hate relationship with rest. Anyone else? Don’t get me wrong, it usually feels great: lounging, self-care routines, massages, Epsom salt baths, smoothies, tea, coffee, all the tasty food. But mentally, I struggle. Like deeply struggle. My competitive spirit won’t let me rest without making me feel guilty. And then the questions come up when I do not have a rest day planned for a day, but didn’t sleep, or some other “life” excuse comes up that would make a sane person take a 24 hour personal day.
So I want to explore the 5 W’s (and 1 H) of rest and recovery today.
I am specifically talking about endurance athletes here, although I imagine there are truth nuggets that can be applied to more than just the marathon runners, long-distance triathletes, century cyclists, and others.
Rest is needed to repair your body. Over-training, or continuing to train either too hard, too much, or both, without proper rest can lead to injury or illness. It is also taxing on your mental state. Usually, it is good to factor in one rest day every week of hard training.
There are two types of rest days: planned and unplanned. Planned rest days are the ones that are accounted for in your training. They’re on your calendar (probably circled). You may shift them around occasionally when you get to a particular week (your brother is flying into town early on a Thursday, so you switch your Monday and Thursday workouts, for example) but they are accounted for.
Then there are unplanned rest days. These are the days you wake up sick. Or you don’t sleep at all and wonder if it’s better to skip a day. Or you strained your knee on your run and wonder if you should skip weights today. Or you planned to hit the gym on the way home from work, but your car breaks down and its past midnight by the time your roommate scoops you up and takes you home. So when is it okay to skip, and when is it not?
Okay, we all know that if you had made plans to train, and your day just got away from you, as hard as it may be to hear, you just need to plan better. Work out in the morning before life has a chance to run away from you. Schedule it on your calendar if you have trouble sticking to your plan. Grab a friend if you need accountability. Have a friend call to wake you up if you have trouble with alarm clocks. Ditch that friend if they are flaky themselves or if you find yourself hanging out instead of working out.
But sometimes it is necessary. Sickness, injury, sleep troubles and other instances make it essential that you swap out your running shoes for house shoes. Here are a few times that you should say no to your workout (Waener). Next, can you shift your schedule to simply start your day an hour later? Sometimes an extra hour of sleep is all you need to jump-start your recovery process (Lufkin). Now with all of that in mind, sometimes you really would benefit from an extra day of rest. The big question that helps me decide is, “Will a full intensity workout today make me see improvements or not?”
Athletes benefit from rest just as much as they do from training (Stulberg). The recovery period is what helps make sure that we are functioning at our best when we are working out. It is a balance, but listening to your body can be the difference between a personal best, or an overuse injury. Not getting the rest you need can lead to depleted energy stores, muscle fatigue, injury, reduced endurance, slowed reaction times, poor agility, hormonal or sleep imbalance, and more (Nunez).
It is always easier to keep to a training plan on a normal schedule, in your home. But we aren’t always at home. Holidays, weddings, travel plans, and other life-events pop up. In these instances, a little bit of planning can go a long way. Maybe you can shift your schedule or bring an extra piece of gear to help you get a solid workout in. When I’m visiting family, I always ask my Dad to plan an outdoor route so we can run together. He’s a runner, and its an easy way to get some extra time in together. Or, if I’m going to be in a hotel or somewhere with access to a pool, I bring a surfboard strap with me so I can get some swim workouts in with a self-created never ending pool.
Typically it is best to modify workouts, before you just skip them entirely. Part of training for an endurance event is preparing the body to perform under fatigue. So if you roll your ankle on your run, maybe you bike today instead. Extremely sore? Maybe yoga will help you get started this morning, and you can get your swim in after work instead of first thing in the morning. Gym closed for the day? Work out using body-weight exercises, focus on your core at home or run outside. Here are a few questions to ask if you feel like skipping a workout.
So what does a rest day look like? Let’s start with what it doesn’t look like. Although it is tempting to binge on all the foods you may crave but know you shouldn’t have while training, stay up late, and have an extra beer or glass of wine, what you do or don’t do during your rest day can have just as much of an impact on your next week of training. So give yourself some self-care and self-love. Here are a few of my favorite rest day activities, tips and tricks:
- Epsom salt bath
- Meal prep for the week
- Sleep in (if you can) — but not too much! It’s such a bummer to get to the end of a rest day and not be able to fall asleep to start your next week
- Read a book that nurtures your mind/spirit
- Active recovery outside with a hike or casual group bike ride
The most important thing is to actually rest on your rest days. It does no one any good if you spin yourself into a fog trying to “catch up” on everything you missed while you are focused on training during your week. Be smart, and use every moment for growth.
Get fired up! Look at your calendar and see if a small change would make a big impact. Where can you push your day to get in an extra hour of sleep? Do you have rest days planned on your calendar? What can you do during those rest days to maximize your recovery? What are your favorite “rest day” activities?
Lufkin, Bryan. “Does an Extra Hour of Sleep Matter?” BBC Worklife, BBC, 5 Jan. 2019, http://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190104-does-an-extra-hour-of-sleep-matter.
Nunez, Kirsten. “Exercise Rest Day: Benefits, Importance, Tips, and More.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 7 Aug. 2019, http://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/rest-day#benefits.
Stulberg, Brad, and Steve Magness. “Excerpt: Why Rest Is Key in All Athletes’ Training.” Sports Illustrated, 7 June 2017, http://www.si.com/edge/2017/06/07/peak-performance-book-extended-breaks-rest-workouts.
Waehner, Paige. “5 Important Reasons to Skip Your Workout.” Verywell Fit, Verywell Fit, 24 June 2019, http://www.verywellfit.com/top-excuses-to-skip-your-workout-1231246.