When you’re training for a race, it’s easy to let enthusiasm propel you out the door to run every.single.day. Or maybe it’s nerves that rev you up; you’re worried you won’t be ready at the starting line if you give yourself a break from running before race day. Either way, you need to take a step back and a deep breath, and repeat after me: Recovery is as important as running.
It may seem counterintuitive, but to reap the benefits of your workouts, you need to take a day or two a week off from working out. Exercise makes little tears in your muscles. When you give those muscles time to repair themselves, it makes them stronger. If you don’t give them time, guess what? They don’t heal and eventually your performance—and even your health—can suffer. Rest and recovery is as much a part of race preparation as eating right, stretching, and doing weekly longer runs.
Rest comes in two varieties: complete and active. A day of complete rest means no exercise, just going about your daily living: going to work, grocery shopping, hanging with friends or family, watching a movie from Netflix. Active rest, as its name implies, involves doing some activity, like swimming, walking, or yoga, instead of running. The former is good because it keeps you mentally fresh, so you’re looking forward to the next workout (and gives you day off to take care of tasks you might not have time to when you’re training), while the latter is helpful because movement speeds oxygen-rich, healing blood get to your injured muscles faster. Both are beneficial.
R&R: sounds easy, but just in case it doesn’t feel easy to you, here are some pointers:
Experiment with what works for you. For some people, taking a complete rest day each week makes them stronger and more energetic; others prefer active rest to complete rest.
If you opt for active rest, realize the optimal word is rest. It doesn’t mean intervals on the bike or an ultra-intense yoga class that gets your quads shaking. It means an easy 20- to 45-minute workout that gets your blood flowing and heart pumping. Walk with a friend, take your dog on a fun hike, or take an easy yoga class–whatever suits your mood.
Listen to your body on a daily basis. If you haven’t scheduled a rest day but feel sluggish or achy, take the day off totally and pick up on your training plan where you left off. It doesn’t mean you’re lazy; it means you’re smart.
Speed up your muscular recovery after a long run with an ice bath; once you hit the 10-mile mark, fill a bathtub with cold water, supplement with ice cubes, put a fleece jacket on your upper half and a warm hat on your head, and take the plunge. (Make sure your legs are completely submerged in icy water.) There are two benefits of this torture: The cold makes tiny tears in the muscles contract and close, minimizing pain later on. And when you get out after 10 or 15 brrrrrracing minutes and take a hot shower, the blood rushing back to your legs flushes out lactic acid.
Recovery doesn’t only happen on rest days. Also key is ample amounts of sleep; 7 to 8 hours nightly is ideal. Also, when you’re traning, it’s important to eat the way you know you should, being sure you refuel within 30 minutes after a workout with carbs and protein (a glass of chocolate milk does the trick). Finally, if you can swing it, get a massage regularly or invest in a foam roller to keep your muscles supple and ready to run.