Hands up if you’ve ever done looked at that “rest/recovery day” on your program’s schedule, but decided to hit it hard anyways. You know how it goes. You feel okay so you decide to take that spin class or that bootcamp class. Or you feel that a day off from running will hamper your progress so you get another run in to avoid losing fitness.
What if I told you that rest/recovery days are where the magic really happens?
No, seriously. These are the days where our bodies actually get stronger. And, just like all the other activities we all love and participate in, there is a right way and a wrong way to do rest days. Before we begin, let’s take a quick look at the difference between rest and recovery days as they are often used interchangeably. According to Runner’s World, a rest day doesn’t involve any exercise whereas a recovery day incorporates low- or no-impact activities.
To learn more about how rest days benefit our running goals and programs, I chatted with strength and running coach, Amanda Regnier (@runningwithregnier). Amanda is based in Calgary and received her Master of Science in Strength and Conditioning from UCAM University in Spain, is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), a Functional Range Conditioning Specialist (FRC), is certified by the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) in both swim and triathlon, and competed for Team Canada at three International Triathlon Union (ITU) Triathlon World Championships (2013, 2014, 2015).
Importance of Rest & Recovery Days
Rest and recovery days are vital to improving our performance on the trails or pavement because they allow our bodies to push harder on our speed days. According to Amanda, “you are missing out on all the benefits of interval training if you can’t reach a high enough intensity.” I’m not sure about you, but I know that I’ve personally struggled to get through a hard running workout when I’ve pushed myself too hard by doing lots of other physically taxing activities leading up to the session.
In their research to better understand the role that exercise intensity plays in mediating physiological adaptations to training, MacInnis and Gibala (2017) identified a training “sweet spot” in high intensity and performance training. They measured increases in mitochondrial density across two sample groups that performed either moderate intensity or high intensity interval workouts. Mitochondria are important because they act as powerhouses in our cells which produce the required energy to fuel our bodies—the more mitochondria we have, the better performances achieved by athletes.
After two weeks of training, the researchers concluded that the higher intensity training was the “sweet spot” we should be striving for to improve aerobic endurance performance, but in order to get there, we need to give our bodies adequate and sufficient rest. If we skimp out on proper rest days, we risk underperforming our speed sessions which, in turn, could result in slower training adaptations.
How Our Bodies Recover on Recovery Days
Amanda commented that rest and recovery days not only allow us to push harder on our interval or tempo days, but they also allow our muscles to better handle the impacts of training. For every single run or strength workout that we do our muscles experience damage in the form of micro-tears. You might be familiar with the pain and soreness typically experienced after hard workouts known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). While unpleasant, Amanda stated that this is beneficial to our overall strength as the damage encourages our muscles to communicate with our bodies by saying, “hey, we need to get stronger so this doesn’t happen again.”
Problems begin to arise when we repeatedly push our bodies while they’re trying to repair past muscle damage. In this scenario, the volume of muscle damage builds up faster than it can be repaired. This is why rest days are so beneficial and crucial to our overall development. Most runners need to take approximately 1 or 2 days off per week. With proper training and load building, it is possible for trained runners to safely decrease the numbers of rest days similar to some high performance runners who train 7 days per week, but Amanda noted that this is NOT necessary for optimal performance.
How to Properly Do Recovery Days
Should we take the word “rest” literally and sit on our butts in front of the TV the entire day? Absolutely not!
In favour of the term “recovery days”, Amanda prefers that her clients do light exercises to increase blood flow which aids recovery. Movement gets our blood circulating which is important because it carries oxygen and nutrients to our tired and damaged muscles which, in turn, promotes faster healing and recovery. It essentially flushes out the “junk” that builds up from our last workouts.
In addition to walking and light cycling, Amanda recommends doing controlled articular rotations (CARS) to get each joint moving through a full range of motion. In addition to flushing out the junk it improves general joint mobility—a joint that moves better performs better and is more injury resistant.
Another great recovery day activity is yoga. Runners of the Six contributor, Samantha J., recommends runners do yoga to complement their running routine. In her article, she states that yoga helps to promote strength, flexibility and posture which all further aid recovery and reduce injury risk.
So, don’t fret the next time you see a rest or recovery day on your program’s schedule. The training magic happens when we give our bodies the rest it needs to recover. Instead of a hard workout, opt for some little- to no-impact light activity that gets your blood flowing and muscles moving. This will promote faster healing and get you running your next speed session even harder.
MacInnis, M. J. & Gibala, M. J (2017). Physiological adaptations to interval training and the role of exercise intensity. The Journal of Physiology, 595(5): 2915-2930.