January 24, 2012

The Purpose of Rest Days

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my mom about her half marathon training. It was Wednesday, and she hadn’t had a chance to do a training run yet for the week, so she told me she planned to run one of the “weekday” runs on Thursday, the other “weekday” run on Friday, and then the “long weekend” run on Saturday. Sounds like she’s sticking with the plan, right?

No, no, no! I realized that when I first set out the training plan, I hadn’t mentioned something that has become human nature to me, but is not necessarily common knowledge: the purpose of rest days.

I designed the beginner’s half marathon training plan so that you’re running three days a week – but not just any three days. I don’t tie the runs to specific days of the week, because I of all people know that life gets crazy and sometimes those plans don’t work out. However, if you do the runs on consecutive days, you’re actually not doing yourself any good – and you’d almost be better off just skipping them! Not intuitive for beginning exercisers, I know. But here’s the deal:

When you weight train, run, or do any other kind of athletic activity, what you’re doing to your muscles is actually tearing them apart. Not in a bad way – but the strain of the exercise makes tiny microscopic tears in the muscle. After you’re done working, your body will work to repair these muscles (that’s why it’s so crucial to make sure you’re getting enough post-workout protein and plenty of sleep). However, your body is pretty smart. “Aha,” it says, “she pushed me to do 3 miles and it got me all banged up. I’m going to repair to be stronger than before, so I can do 4 miles! She’ll never make me run all that!” (Unfortunately for your body, it underestimates your willpower and how you’re going to keep testing its limits by making it do more and more every time you rebuild). This is why by the last week when you’re doing a 12 mile run, you can get through the early miles like they’re nothing at all – even though in the early weeks, you were struggling to do just 2 miles. Progress!

(My friend Adam would also like me to point out that if you break a bone, it calcifies around the break to be even stronger than before. So really, your best bet for training is to hire Tonya Harding to break your legs on day 1, and then run your race after they’ve healed. Obviously.)

The problem with this scenario comes when you find someone who’s overzealous in their workouts. (Hi, right here!) They erroneously think that if some working out is good, more working out must be better – and so they lift weights / run / whatever every single day of the week… and then get frustrated when they’re not seeing any results. In that scenario, they’re only tearing the muscles apart, but not giving them a chance to rebuild stronger than before. All that work is leading to no progress whatsoever! This is why rest days are critical to your training plan.

In following the training plan, you should be taking at least one day off in between each run. If you do your long run on Sunday, don’t do the first run of the next week on Monday – wait until Tuesday. If you did your last weekday run on a Friday, then your weekend run should be on Sunday, not Saturday. This does require a little bit of extra planning (if you know you can only do your long run on Saturday, you have to make sure that your second weekday run is done by Thursday), but wouldn’t you prefer I allow this flexibility than telling you exactly which weekdays you have to do your runs on? It’s not that complicated.

The one caveat I’ll give to the “every other day” approach is this: for me personally, working out “every other” day often means that “every” day turns into the “other” day. If you think you might be the same way, don’t despair! Just because you can’t work the same muscles every day doesn’t mean that you can’t still work out every day. I make it a point to work out every day so that it becomes as habitual as showering (that is to say, I skip it on occasion, but not often and not for more than one pass day). Vary the kind of exercises that you’re doing each day, and you’re good to go. This weekend’s Athleta training run is going to include a talk on cross-training – so I’ll talk a lot more about what kind of cross-training you can do then. For now, just remember that if a particular muscle is sore from your workout the day before, find something to do that doesn’t strain your already sore muscle.


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