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.
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