Every run should have a purpose… even your easy runs and rest days. Given that, I want to elaborate on some purposes for those easy days, some alternatives for those days and how to determine what is best for you. I want to thank James Kahler for prompting this post.
First, let’s remember that training itself does not make you stronger – it in fact makes you weaker by breaking down muscles (micro-damage to the cells themselves). It is during recovery (easy or rest days) that your body has a chance to synthesize cell tissue and rebuild the damage done by hard workouts. You cannot continuously workout hard and expect to improve. You will break your body down little by little until it is injured.
Therefore, “rest” is esential. The primary purpose for a rest day is for recovery and rebuilding cells. An easy run or a complete day off or a cross-training day may be in order depending on the runner’s individual conditioning and strengths. For instance, a novice runner or one who runs very modest miles (15-25 miles per week) may need a full rest day after a particularly hard workout. Yet another novice may do well with cross-training that day. On the other hand, a runner who is accustomed to running six or seven days a week and perhaps 40-50 miles per week is strong enough to run an “easy” 4-6 mile run the day following a hard workout.
I should also clarify what a “hard” workout is. Here are examples of hard workouts: a track session with repeats at 5k pace or better; a long run which is about 30% longer than your average run; a hard hill repeat workout; or it could be a tempo run. Most other workouts actually would constitute an average everyday run… not hard and not easy either. If you are just starting out, it is possible that a 2-3 mile run necessitates a day off because that run is in fact hard for you.
There are other reasons for rest days. Lingering aches (beyond 2-3 days) and pains (that get worse as you run – as opposed to dissipate as you run on) or just chronic fatigue and not feeling yourself in your workouts are indicative of the need for backing off.
So, why not just take the day off completely if the goal is recovery? The short answer is – you can! For some runners, three days a week is all they can handle. More than this and the miles cause them injuries. So, the three days they do run are high quality or long runs and the other days are rest days. I’ve had three-hour marathon results with just such a schedule… so this is not a ridiculous scenario. It is an exception however.
Now for the longer answer. Having a rest day, easy day or cross-training day is a unique application. An easy day allows blood flow to flush waste products from your body (muscles) quicker than being a couch potato. It keeps you loose for the next workout (that is a “purpose”). It also adds to your conditioning.
Exercise and conditioning are neuromuscular specific. So, to get in better shape for an activity, it requires doing that activity. The more you do (within reason) the more comfortable and efficient you will become with that activity. So, yes, cumulative miles of running do enhance total conditioning even when they are easy. Weekly miles up to the 40-50 miles per week range can yield good upswings to your VO2max. Even though this is not a stong indicator for actual race performance, it is not a bad thing to enhance either. So, those easy miles do have physiological benefits.
Stronger, more mature or more experienced runners have more options available to them for “recovery” days. Cross-training is far more beneficial for the novice runner because they may improve general strength and conditioning they lack. For the experienced runner it can offer a respite from the running grind.
On the other hand, an experienced and seasoned runner may benefit more by doing the activity itself – running. The further up the food chain the more true this is. Here’s a rule of thumb for doing and easy run: it should be anywhere from 1:00-2:00 per mile slower than your marathon pace and should be in the range of 50-75% of the distance of your average daily run. Olympic or elite athletes will err towards running days for their “recovery” days. Some of their “recovery” days will look like most of our “hard” days!
If you cross-train on an easy day your workout should still have purpose. If you work with weights, then be sure you enhance core strength and running specific motions in your workout. Aqua-running is still the #1 best alternative for runners. It provides running-specific training, reduces pounding on your body and provides resistance training simultaneously.
Since no two runners are alike, there is no single answer on how to handle your recovery. Take into consideration objective data:
- How fast was that speed/quality workout?
- Were you able to hit your target paces for the workout or not?
- What phase of training are you in currently?
- How many days off have you had recently?
- What has your weekly mileage looked like… increments of increase… last easy week, etc.?
- What do you usually do on a “rest” or “easy” day?
Then use subjective data:
- How hard did you run in that quality workout? (Not all quality workouts have the same effect on you.)
- How sore are you from that workout? (Lingering soreness, especially more than 2-3 days is cause to REST.)
- Are you mentally ready to run again today?
- Is the rest of your health status up to snuff? (sleep, illness, stress, general fatigue)
These are the kinds of questions you and/or your coach need to ask in order to help determine the ideal recovery pattern as well as specific workouts (or non-workouts) that will benefit you best. This is an example of when a qualified coach is indispensible. Sometimes as the athlete, we are too close to the subject to be objective enough to decide when easy is best or when rest is best.