So here's the question.
How many days in a row should I be running?
How often should I take a rest day and do rest days mean rest from running or rest from extra exercise?
This is probably one of the top ten questions I get, and to be honest, it does depend on each individual runner. I will break down my answer in a couple of different ways:
To really answer the question on the right rest and recovery, we kind of have to break down the various factors that could change the answer from runner to runner. Let's start with the importance of rest first.
Importance of Rest for Runners
So whenever you run, you work out or do any type of exercise, the activity creates overload in your muscles, which creates these little microscopic tears.
The cool thing is you don't have to worry about it because this is actually a good thing. These little microscopic tears are beneficial, and when quickly repaired through rest and recovery, they build up to make your muscles stronger, more resistant to injury and less likely to fatigue. So a strong muscle is a muscle that is slow to fatigue. It helps you be able to run longer and run faster and be healthier and less likely to get injured.
However, when you skip rest days and you don't give your body the time to properly repair and recover the risk of these turning into more macro tiers or larger tears, because these little tears aren't healing completely. They just start getting bigger and bigger, then that's when you start experiencing pain and you start experiencing overuse injuries such as strains and tears.
Another thing that happens when you exercise and run, is that your body uses muscle and liver glycogen as fuel. This is just stored energy you get from the food you eat, mostly carbohydrates, and normally muscle glycogen is replaced as you eat.
Extended days of exercise without rest can lead to significant depletion over time. That leads to low energy. In fact, you know, the harder you work out, the faster it depletes. So taking a rest day every two to three days allows your body to kind of top off, top off what gets used.
Now, the glycogen recovery is more geared towards runners who are endurance runners. Those who are training for half and full marathons, typically shorter distances, can recover day to day, at least on the muscle glycogen recovery side, but you still need those days of rest to help, they allow your body to repair and recover from the running itself.
BEGINNER: So if you're a new runner, just starting out, taking a day off every other day allows your body to kind of heal in between workouts. And that is why for brand new runners, I recommend a three day program with a day off in between each run. And at this point, it's more about your body just needing that extra time to recover. Your body is just not ready to resist the impacts that running offers because you know, your body’s bones, muscles, joints just haven't built up the tolerance yet or the resistance to the impact. And if you do more than this, then you have a significantly higher chance of getting injured. You'll start getting things such as developing shin splints or various forms of tendonitis and possibly even stress fractures and on and on.
MID-LEVEL: As you get more experience, your body becomes stronger and you can go to more of a two day on, one day off routine.
EXPERIENCED: As for advanced runners, you can run upwards to five to six days per week, but you still need to work at a day of rest or two. Even those who run six days a week should add an extra day of rest every couple of weeks. But a six day trading week should really be the exception for all but the most advanced runners. And you certainly don't need to exercise seven days per week. In fact, doing so often leads to plateaus, and possible injuries.
But you may be thinking: “Steve, what about those streak runners who run every day for weeks, months or even years."
If you're a streak runner, that's fine. It's just that most streak runners I know use low mileage. Sometimes a run they have on a particular day may only be a mile or so. So it's really far less mileage and overall impact compared to people who are running, say, three or four miles per day every day.
The Important Takeaway: Rest days do not hurt you. In fact, you most likely will find yourself making faster gains, getting stronger and feeling better by adding rest days. If you're one who runs almost every day by not getting the proper recovery time in, you're just making the workout you do less effective.
What Does it Mean to Get a Rest Day and Does it Mean No Activity or Just No Running?
It depends the amount of time you run, intensity, your anaerobic capacity and fitness level. After a long run you may need a couple of days or even one week to fully recover and restore your energy. General recovery rule: One day of rest for every mile of the race.
Well, once again, it depends. Ideally, a day off from running is considered a full rest day, but rest really comes down to intensity. For example, there's this concept of hard versus easy when it comes to working out. The idea is that you have a hard workout and you follow it by an easy workout. And sometimes that may be a rest day, but other days it's usually lower intensity.
So the lower intensity is allowing some degree of rest and recovery to occur, even though you're still running or working out. Again, it comes down to the scale that the rest and recovery is occurring in. Obviously at the high end of the scale of rescue and recovery is a true rest.
Farther down that scale, it might be just a shorter run at a slower, less intense workout. So you're still allowing recovery to occur to some degree, but maybe not to the degree that a full rest day would happen if you took the whole day off.
For experienced runners, you can get by with, often just doing an easy day after a hard day, whereas with a brand new beginner runner, taking a complete rest day off after your workout will help you maximize the recovery process. That's important because you're a beginner at this stage and you need that rest day.
On the contrary muscles of a more experienced runner are more resistant to fatigue and are not breaking down as much as the muscles of a brand new runner would. For those experienced runners, though, day after day of running, even if you are alternating hard days with easy days, it does start to catch up with you. The wear and tear never really truly gets back to a normal state, it just kind of gets closer to a normal state before you run again and then you start tearing down again, and then if you follow that with an easy day, it'll repair a little bit, but never quite repairs fully. This is why even with experienced runners, you do need to take days off to fully recover.
Cross-Training for Recovery
Rest days are important, but it doesn’t mean you have to lay on the couch all day. Cross-training is a good way to stay active but let your body rest from running. Just avoid intense training or speedwork during the rest days.
Beneficial Types of Cross-Training for Runners
So if you decide to swim on a rest day, it has very little negative impact on the muscular recovery in your legs because swimming's not really using your legs that much, especially not the same muscles. Swimming allows you to exercise and not have the same impact that you would have as a result of running.
So this is good news, right? Well, absolutely. But what if you spend days in the gym doing squats, and leg extensions? Well, then I'd argue that this is not really resting. You're hitting the muscles at different angles or even a lot of the same muscles, you are using them, therefore, now this is probably not a good choice of exercise to do on rest days.
Let's look a little bit at riding a bike. It uses muscles but certainly has less impact than running, yet more impact than say, swimming, but less impact than running.
If you're a beginner, it might not be a good idea on a rest day. But if you're an experienced runner, cycling will probably be OK because you have some repair going on from the previous day's workout because you're not using your legs as hard as, say, somebody who has just started out.
But again, it all comes down to the intensity and the muscles that you're using during your exercise. If you're just casually riding your bike around the neighborhood with the kiddos, then it probably won't have as much impact, even if you are a beginner, because it's a very casual, easy ride.
It's not a hard, intense ride where you may be riding your bike trying to truly break a sweat or pedal uphill or ride fast to get a workout in, then you may want to leave that for another day or maybe substitute cycling on that day instead of a run.
Running and High Intensity Training
Those of you who do high intensity training, P90X3 workout or the Insanity workout or other very challenging workouts often do use muscles that need to be or should be recovered and rested. If you're trying to combine that type of workout with running routines, then you're probably best either doing that on the same day that you do a hard workout or you can skip one of your weekly runs or two of your weekly runs and do high intensity training type workouts instead, because those exercises are typically total body. They have cardiovascular benefits as well.
Sometimes doing that in lieu of a run is a possible option that will still allow you to recover and have normal rest days.
Carbohydrates, Glycogen and Post-Run Recovery
So everything I mentioned up to this point has specifically been targeted to the muscular breakdown and recovery, but there's another side as well, and it is your stored muscle and liver glycogen that gets stored up to be used as energy like I had kind of previously mentioned earlier.
As you go through your day, whether you're resting or not or whether you're working and doing yard work, just breathing or even sleeping, your body is using glycogen to fuel your body along with some levels of fat and protein burning. But as you eat, you're topping off your glycogen stores and when you run, you're cutting into that.
So for most runs under 90 minutes or so in duration, it's not really a big deal because your body is storing it. It's storing it from when you eat and you're just not using all of it. But for those of you who run long distances, particularly marathon training and half marathon training, you usually need some form of carbohydrate replacement after that 90 minutes or so.
So after runs or after the 90 minutes, the best time to refuel is within that 30 to 60 minutes of completing your workout. But for those of you who are under 90 minutes, your body can usually keep up. Therefore, the impacts of running several days in a row has less to do with glycogen replacement as much as it does with recovering your body's muscles and joints and bones like I, I previously mentioned.
Again, I want to emphasize that those of you who are endurance athletes need that rest. Studies show athletes who repeatedly workout without enough rest days do not fully restore to their previous topped off levels. Therefore, again, throwing a rest every few days will help your body catch up and give you the energy you need to train.
Factors Affecting your Recovery
The amount of rest days you need also are impacted by age. The younger you are, generally speaking, the less rest and recovery days you need. Young people typically heal and recover much faster than older people. And I noticed a big difference just in the past few years of needing to add another rest day to my own running.
I used to be able to consistently run five days per week. Now, four days per week seems to be my sweet spot because that extra day of rest has more benefit to allow me to heal faster.
To summarize and kind of frame everything back up:
- 1Consider your age
- 2Consider your experience level and whether or not you're cross training
- 3Then pick a training plan that you think is a good starting place to begin with based on some of the guidelines I mentioned above
And if you listen to what your body tells you, you're going to know soon enough. And what I mean by that is that you're going to start to feel sluggish. Your resting heart rate will creep up. You may even start getting sick or feel run down more often than you used to. And these are all signs that you should cut back a bit, putting an extra rest day and then try to reset.
Training Plans and Rest Days
One thing I want to finally mention here before we start to wrap it up is how rest days tie into training plans for those of you who use them. Good training plans will build in rest days for you. But you have to be sure that based on your experience, based on whether or not you're doing cross training based on your age, that you are aligned and matched against a good plan that is right for you.
If you're a beginner, follow a beginner plan. Trying to promote yourself up the scale to a more advanced plan too early because you think it might speed up your progress or make you faster is really a big recipe for disaster when it comes to your training.
And while you may be able to keep up with the schedule, initially, your body just hasn't built up the resistance and the tolerance to the impacts and fatigue based on the wear and tear you're getting. All you're doing is setting yourself up for failure. And I can't emphasize how important it is because most of us think that getting more workouts is better, right? You run more, you bike more, you do more cross training exercises. But in fact, it's actually worse not better.
Moreover, I have actually sped people up significantly just by adding in an extra day or two of rest. And I know this seems counterintuitive, but it really works. And you just have to figure out what is the right amount of balance between the amount of workouts you get and the amount of rest stays in, and that's why I said early on, it kind of depends on each of us.
Each of us have a different makeup, a different point in our evolution as a runner. Some of us are farther along. Some of us aren't. Some of us who are farther along may be older than others, therefore we need to scale back. So it's not a definite answer, and all I can tell you is follow some guidelines and then kind of experiment a little bit.
As a result, within a few weeks to a month, you should really be able to settle in to what is working for you and then always be aware of how your body is adapting and you can make adjustments up or down in the future as your level of skill or as your training age increases. And I don't mean like your biological age, I'm talking about your training age. As you become better trained, in better condition, you may find out that you can add additional days in.
I hope that was helpful. Happy running!
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