Trail runners aren’t the best at taking it easy. Trail running tends to attract the work-driven “Type-A” personalities who flourish in structured daily training, hard workouts, long adventures on trails and other activities that stress the body. Training can become addictive and the “runners’ high” is a real feeling that leaves some trail runners feeling physically “off” or even dysfunctional when they don’t get their daily dose of running. From the competitive mindset, training more is also easy to justify. Doesn’t running more result in better fitness and faster times? Shouldn’t the goal always be to run more and train harder? Although dedication to training is key to becoming a better runner, balancing hard efforts by incorporating rest days and easy running into our training is the most effective way to stay healthy and become a faster runner in the long-term. In this article, I share why it’s important to rest and run easy, how it makes you faster and how to know when to include it in your training.
Why Should I Rest?
One of the most established training principles adhered to by top running coaches over the years is the stress plus rest formula. At its core, this principle argues that in order to achieve higher levels of running fitness you must apply stress to your body through training, then rest to allow your body to rebuild stronger. Running applies stress to your body, which wears down your muscles and tendons. Your body will build back stronger from this stress, but only if it has adequate rest. Running too much or too intensely without rest puts your body in a constant state of breakdown. This results in injury or lack of adaptation to your training.
Determining the right amount of stress and rest to apply is where knowing your body and having a great coach or training plan is essential. Elite runners may be able to recover from and adapt to extreme stresses on a weekly basis or take fewer actual days off from running than the general running population. This is because their bodies have become conditioned to handle this stress through years of training. For example, a six mile run at seven minutes per mile pace for an elite runner might count as “taking it easy,” whereas for many runners this run would place great stress on their bodies. For new runners especially, taking days off from running is a good idea to allow time for your muscles, bones, and tendons to adapt to the high impact forces of running. As a general rule of thumb, the more miles you put into your legs over the years, the more likely you’ll be able to handle higher intensity workouts, longer runs, more weekly mileage, and overall take less easy days/days off without compromising your ability to adapt to these efforts. That said, all runners benefit from consistent rest and easy days.
How Rest and Easy Days Make You Faster
More Effective Training Schedules
Rest days and easy days help you spread out your weekly training load and allow for better training adaptations. Most elite athletes run about 80% of their training at easy efforts and only 20% at relatively harder efforts. Coaches incorporate higher intensity workouts in different ways. Some advise more frequent harder efforts per week but keep them shorter in duration, whereas others prefer less frequency of these workouts and longer durations. As a general rule, make most of your running “easy” to allow for the greatest adaptations to your training. Include hard workouts sparingly and experiment with different types of workout schedules to see what produces the best adaptations for your racing and fitness goals.
In order to maximize performances in key workouts your body needs to be fresh. This is best achieved through rest or easy running in the days leading up to the workout. One example of a workout that requires “fresh legs” is the “long run.” For many trail runners, weekly long run workouts help them achieve higher levels of endurance if they’re able to perform the workout correctly. The long run workout requires running significantly farther than a runner’s average running distance (often 15 to 30% more in terms of time or distance). To make sure you’re able to complete the long run workout without completely exhausting your body or drastically slowing your pace towards the end of the run, your body needs to be fresh before starting. Taking a day off or a few easy days before your long run helps you reap the benefits from the workout and avoid applying too much stress to your body.
Mental and Physical Resets
Mental and physical resets are key making training adaptations in the long-term. Running improvement is not a linear process and in order to get faster over time your fitness should ebb and flow. Scheduling specific times throughout the year when you run at only easy efforts or take time off completely from running will keep you fresh. Without these periods of reset, running can become dull, our bodies fatigue, race performances plateau and we may get lost in the routine of training and forget why we love trail running in the first place. There’s no better way to reignite your passion for running than leaving it for a period of time and enjoying it even more when you return.
How to Know When Incorporate Rest and Easy Days
Work With a Coach
Working with an experienced trail running coach is the best way to figure out how to schedule rest into your training. There are many methods of coaching, and each coach has a unique method for how to balance stress and rest in training. Good coaches should be able to figure out what workouts and training volume your body responds to best in order to achieve the training adaptations specific to your running goals. See our coaching directory page to find a coach here or feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions about what to look for in coaches. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
When You’re Fatigued
If you aren’t able or prefer not to work with a coach, you can judge your need to take rest and easy days by tuning into your body. States of consistent mental or physical fatigue are signs that you aren’t getting enough rest or easy days. Well-structured training should feel cyclical. You’ll have days when you feel tired throughout the week, but you’ll have other days when you feel better and can run faster with less effort. If you aren’t ever feeling good in your training, odds are that you’re applying too much stress. Consider keeping a training journal where you can write down a quick sentence or two about how you feel on each run. If you look back on the journal and see patterns of consistent fatigue, slow running or signs or mental burnout, it’s time to take more rest. Depending on your situation and training background, this may mean a few days of only easy/short runs, one to several days off of running, or a complete break from running for a week or more. Keep in mind that even elite runners take weeks or months off from running to reset if they feel they need it.
When Workouts Don’t Go As Planned
If you have workouts where you need to hit certain times or paces and you aren’t able to, it’s easy to blow them off as “bad workouts” and move on without diving into the real reasons why the workout went poorly. In many cases, the reason for poor workouts is too much stress in the days leading up to the workout, or not enough rest after the previous workout. Both situations result in an unbalanced stress plus rest scenario. If you have a poor workout, consider taking a day or two completely off of running. I also suggest reducing the frequency of your hard days for one to two weeks, so your body can return stronger. Rest and run easy as much as you need to in order to make sure your hard workouts are on point. If you’re performing the right workouts at your goal paces you’ll show up on race day ready to rock and roll.
After a Goal Competition
After completing your goal races is one of the best times to take longer periods of rest or easy running. This is especially true after ultramarathon races, which place large amounts of stress on the body. Both mentally and physically, the week after a race effort is not the time to add more stress to your body. Races encourage us to run at faster paces and go longer distances compared to our normal training. This makes it necessary to balance the additional stresses of these races with more recovery. Furthermore, taking time off from running after a race is a good idea to allow the emotions of the race to settle and let the race sink in before jumping into your next competition.
Curious for tips on how to make your rest days more effective? Check out my article “How to Get the Most Out of Your Rest Days.”