The hardest part of any vigorous training program is not the early, dark mornings or the sore quads or even the occasional injury scare. Nope. The hardest part is the rest days—those days in between runs where you feel restless bored and uncertain, where you miss running and wish it was any other day and suddenly feel depressed and like you are totally wasting your life and doing nothing all because you did not raise your heartrate that day.
Or maybe that is just me.
Truth be told, I will do almost anything to avoid a complete rest day. I spin, I use the stepmill religiously, I attend boot camps and kickboxing classes, I row for hours and crunch, crab-walk and dip all to avoid a day spent completely without a workout. But the reality is, resting is as crucial to a training program as the workouts. In fact, in many cases, they may be more important.
As any good trainer or coach will tell you: the body builds the muscles and absorbs the work done during the rest period that comes after a good workout. For a marathoner, that two week taper period (and the rest days built into the training program) is/are considered the most important part. It is the recovery period during which the body creates the changes that ultimately help an athlete perform. Skip the taper and do yourself a giant disservice. In addition, rest helps the body avoid injury. As it absorbs the work done during difficult workouts, the muscles also have time to repair themselves and therefore are operating from a stronger position the next time you need them.
Of course, “rest” means different things to different people. For me, most often, it means I switch it up. I do Pilates or yoga or hard cardio that is soft on the joints. It does not have to mean “sit around in one’s pjs all day eating nutella,” although sometimes it needs to mean that, too. The fact is, training is hard on the body and even though, for many of us, it does become an addiction, the body also needs some downtime, too.
Of course, the best way to use a rest day is to find a way to make it benefit your training. So if you need to eat a fluffernutter and catch up on Desperate Housewives, then by all means, do so, but if you want to use the time to help your training, there are plenty of options for that as well.
My tips for rest days:
• Pilates/Yoga: a great way to tone up the body without putting too much strain on any one joint. It is also a great way to gain flexibility, which can be a huge help in injury prevention.
• Low-impact cardio: sometimes you just need to crank up the tunes and sweat. I get it. Try the stepmill. Next to running, it is the best workout one can have for the cardiovascular system. I ran a marathon in three hours and forty-eight minutes and the stepmill at level 14 for 50 minutes is still an absolute kick in the rear. I mix it up with spinning/bike riding outside, which also gives a near-running level workout minus the strain to joints and muscles.
• Rowing: this is a great shoulder workout and definitely a good cardio workout as well. A great way to mix it up and build strength in muscles beyond the legs.
• Weights/weight training: take a class, work with a trainer. Any muscle built can only help to increase running strength and create overall toning (looking good is almost as important as feeling good, after all).
• Swimming: I put this last because it interests me the least, but far be it from me to leave it off the list. The fact is that those who love it swear by it and it is probably the best overall body workout with the least impact out there. I just find swimming tedious. And I hate getting my hair wet.
• Actual rest: don’t knock it until you try it. No you won’t go the full couch potato by taking one day off. Get a massage. Take a long, slow walk. Allow your muscles to completely rest and assimilate all the work you’ve done. Stay in the pajamas all day. You’ve earned it.
Sasha Brown-Worsham is a writer, a mother and an unabashed, unashamed runaholic. Check her progress each week as she trains to qualify for the Boston Marathon.