The idea of a rest day workout may seem confusing. It’s a rest day, isn’t it? What do you mean I have to work out? Others love active rest days since it’s an opportunity to get out and enjoy nature or physical activity without the routine schedule of a training plan.
Rest days are great opportunities to do other kinds of physical activity that will actually boost your training.
In this post, we’ll look at the importance of rest days, what kinds of activities you can do on a rest day, and how to plan for rest day workouts in your training schedule.
Our guide to resting like an elite athlete gives a great overview of active vs. passive recovery. Passive recovery is what it sounds like – laying on the couch and doing nothing, hoping your body heals on its own.
Always remember that if you are feeling tired and perhaps the onset of exhaustion or burnout creeping in, have a passive recovery rest day with minimal activity – light walking, for example
Active recovery means you’re giving your muscles some rest, but still moving and maintaining your fitness. Through active recovery you are helping your body recover and heal. A rest day workout gives you this active recovery and helps your body bounce back after a hard session or a hard week of sessions.
You can even recover from running by… running! See our Ultimate Guide to Recovery Runs to learn how.
How Important Are Rest Days?
Rest days are critical to improving your training.
You have to give your body a chance to recover from the intense training you’re putting it through. Rest days will let your muscles recover and grow back stronger. Runners need to avoid overtraining, and the best way to do that is through proper rest and recovery.
We feel soreness in our muscles after a workout for a reason – it’s our body’s way of telling us to take a break. Pushing through those aches and pains may work in the short term. If you keep doing it you’ll open yourself up to injuries and will eventually stop seeing progress in your training.
Vicky Adie, an experienced physiotherapist and pilates instructor specializing in sports injury management, gives some reasons why rest days are so important.
“Rest days are an important part of building fitness. Your body needs time to recover and is as important as your activities. However, the exact amount of time needed to recover will very much depend on the intensity of the training you are doing. As a rule of thumb, at least one day of resting should be considered after a relatively intense run.
But that doesn’t mean you need to sit around doing nothing. You can continue to contribute to your running ability in other ways – most notably through increasing the strength and flexibility of core muscle groups.”
How Can I Exercise on Rest Days?
Adie continues with some great ideas for how to exercise on rest days.
“As a physio and pilates Instructor, I am vocal about the importance of developing deep abdominal core muscles as well as other commonly neglected muscles in runners such as the glutes and inner thigh muscles.
Building these muscles helps to increase your core control, improves posture, and contributes towards efficient running form.
Related: 6 Downsides of ONLY Running: Why Runners Need To Cross Train
Your core muscles act as a stabilizer for your torso, helping you to keep steady and upright. Your body is able to transfer the forces from running or other activities more efficiently if all these muscles are working well together.
Furthermore, weaknesses in these areas encourage our bodies to compensate with other muscle groups, putting pressure on other areas of the body and increasing risk of injury.
And it is not only strengthening that is important for runners, stretching and maintaining flexibility is also vital to keeping your movement fluid and again reducing the risk of injury.
Undertaking a regular Pilates regime as part of training on your ‘rest’ days will help target core, glute and inner thigh strengthening that will contribute towards overall improvement.
Specific exercises such as bridging, the clam, plank (with leg lifts), and scissors movements are good examples to incorporate.”
Related: How Stretching Is Sabotaging Your Running – Avoid These 5 Harmful Stretching Exercises
Pilates sounds like a great way to have a rest day workout. Similarly, Cory Reese, marathon and ultramarathon runner, and author of the running books Nowhere Near First and Into the Furnace has some other suggestions.
“For runners, their preferred mode of exercise is likely strapping on the running shoes and hitting the pavement or treadmill. But we need breaks from running during the week to prevent physiological breakdown and mental burnout. There are a number of great rest day workouts:
- Weight lifting helps to build muscle mass, and burn calories while using different muscle groups than the ones you typically use while running.
- Going for an easy walk is an excellent way to loosen up tight, achy muscles. Leave the GPS watch at home, and don’t worry about pace. Give yourself permission to go easy. My recovery after 100-mile races progresses much smoother and faster if I go out and walk an easy mile the day after the race.
- Building yoga into your weekly workout schedule gives your body an opportunity to reap the rewards of stretching, deep breathing, and meditation.”
Another expert, Chanha Hwang, PT, DPT, CHC, and founder of Fatherly Health and Wellness offers a couple more options.
“I recommend 2 tips for the best active rest day for runners: Cycling and Hiking. Cycling provides a good light exercise for runners on their rest day because the motion is similar to running with little to no impact on the joints. The goal of cycling should be to ride comfortably in the low intensity on the rest days.
Hiking on the rest day for runners also allows muscles to be active differently than when they are running. The muscle activation in the lower legs changes when walking on an incline, so the runners are able to develop new motor skills that can transfer from running to other activities. I recommend aiming for 45 minutes to an hour of hiking.
You can also get a breath of fresh air at the same time. Running every day may increase the risk for overuse injury which can be more detrimental for avid runners or for those who are just starting out.”
As you can see, there are so many different ways to exercise on rest days. These ideas give you direction on what kinds of exercises you can choose for your rest day workouts that won’t have any downstream impacts on your training.
Here’s the important thing to remember: you should find an activity that will help your recovery, not hurt it.
How To Plan Rest Days
Are you wondering how many rest days per week you should have? Reese goes on to explain the frequency of rest days that he recommends for runners.
“Runners should take 2-3 rest days each week. Those rest days can include light exercise as long as the focus remains recovery from the physical stress of running.
For peak performance, runners should strive to take one day each week of total rest. Complete rest allows muscles to repair the micro-tears that occur during running. A day of complete rest each week helps reduce the risk of injuries, and helps to avoid the mental burnout that can result from overtraining.”
Dr. Hwang agrees: “As a physical therapist, I recommend taking at least 3 days per week off from running to work on low-intensity strengthening exercises or work on flexibility at home to reduce the risk for injury, give your body time to recover, and to prevent burnouts.”
If you’re training for a marathon, you most likely have a plan that includes rest days. When choosing your training plan, it is important to understand the plan’s approach to rest days, as well as what the plan recommends for cross-training and strength training days. Be sure to check out our library of free training plans to find one that is right for you.
If you see a training plan that doesn’t have rest days anywhere, meaning there are runs 7 out of 7 days a week, then you’ve probably found an elite runner’s plan. Unless you are at an elite level, I don’t recommend it!
Running every day while training for a race is definitely possible. But some of the runs on that plan will probably be recovery runs. Meaning, they are intentionally short. Slow runs are meant to primarily shake out the legs after hard runs the day before.
Use Rest Day Workouts to Get to the Next Level
By now we’re sure you agree that rest day workouts are a great addition to your training plan. While it may seem that the logical approach to recovery would include a lot of laying down, that type of passive recovery doesn’t move you forward.
Active recovery, using exercise on rest days to boost your recovery turns your training plan up a notch. Just remember to follow the suggestions from the experts we’ve assembled, and you’ll be on your way. Good luck!