-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Training: How important are rest days?

Megan asks the following question:

I am training for my first marathon and get antsy on my rest days (I’m taking two of them). Is it ok to do the elliptical on rest days since it’s such low impact and using different muscles than used for running? Or would that lead to over training?

First, I think that the importance of rest days is critical in any well designed workout schedule. Recovery is an important part of the process that leads to improvement. You push your body in your workouts and your body responds by changing to meet the challenges that you have placed on it — it is during your recovery time that all of the good stuff really happens. Recovery and sleep — or rather a lack of enough recovery and sleep — are real limiters to performance improvement.

Before I continue on with the question, let me back up a minute and add that your workout program needs to have aspects of both “quality” and “quanitity” to it. “Quality” means workouts that really push you and cause you to improve your running efficiency. “Quantity” is more a matter of time spent exercising in order to have your muscles repeat the motions of your running at the pace that you want to run your marathon. You need both elements in a training program, but it is the quality side that improves your performance. Too often people lean more to the quanity side — or even do only workouts aimed at amassing miles.

Recovery becomes more and more necessary as you increase the amount of high quality or more intense workouts. Speed work, tempo runs, hills, intervals, track work, and spin classes are all necessary to improve and the more you do of them the more rest and recovery you’ll need.

So getting back to the question at hand, often times when runners are feeling antsy it is because they are doing too much “quantity” and not enough “quality”. If you’re challenging your body, your body will ask you (or eventually force you) to take the recovery that it needs. Even the most advanced runners build recovery into their schedules, whether it is a day a week or even a whole week of reduced intensity every 4-6 weeks to “unload”.

Should you fill your rest days with low-impact exercise? I’d say that you may want to look at your workout plan and see if you have the capability to push harder in some of your other workouts and get yourself to the point of “wanting” recovery. When you look forward to your recovery breaks, you’ll actually enjoy them. But to get to that point, you’ll need to take the intensity up a notch.

Now if you’re doing a lot of high quality work and you’re just addicted to exercising every day (which is certainly true of many of my triathletes), I might suggest that you fill those days with somethig that is low impact and will be really useful to you in your training. Activities like yoga, core strength classes, weight lifting, plyometrics and quickness exercises could all be done on rest days and have a positive impact on your running without adding more low-level cardio into the mix.

Before you do any workout, make sure that it has purpose in your training plan. Avoid doing workouts that are just for the sake of “quantity” and really focus on improving your efficiency through “quality” work.

Thanks for the great question and good luck in your training.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News

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