I was catching up with a fellow coach this week who told me she wasn't seeing a step change in her performance and felt burned out. I asked when was her last complete rest day. It took a while for her to remember.
As a marathon runner and triathlete who fears losing fitness with any break, I've experienced this too. My "rest days" often include cross-training like swimming or strength training. Actual rest days, and more importantly intentional rest days, are often forgotten.
But there is growing research that shows extended rest is important to maintain good mental health and optimal performance. How much rest is the tricky part, since our minds and bodies may need different amounts of time to recover.
It turns out that our fitness does not diminish as drastically as we think with an extended period of rest. Our bodies adapt to "defend" our fitness level, keeping older blood cells in circulation for longer to deliver oxygen to our muscles. Indeed, an elite athlete like 5-time Olympian Bernard Lagat, running his first marathon at age 43, has taken five full weeks off running each year since 1999 to recharge mentally and physically.
Of course, the longer and harder your training program, the longer the break you may need. In order to prevent both mental and physical fatigue, here are a few of my guidelines to train smarter:
- Don't increase weekly mileage by more than 10% per week, knowing your limits on total weekly mileage
- Avoid training programs that are too long (e.g 16+ weeks for a marathon) to prevent fatigue
- Find a better balance between running and cross-training, and speed-work and easier effort runs
- Approach improving one step at a time, training at your current race fitness until you achieve a new PR
- Plan complete rest days or full week, a massage, trip to the spa or float pod, listening to your body and resuming training with renewed strength
Coach Joe Vigil once said, "There is no such thing as over-training, only under-resting." One of my mantras I tell my athletes is rest and recover as hard as you train. Ensure proper sleep and nutrition. Try running without your GPS watch from time to time. No one has ever wondered if an injury was caused by an additional rest day!