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The Rest is Easy: Why you have to back off in order to push hard

Originally appeared at http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-238-267–13104-0,00.html
By Ed Eyestone
Image by Emiliano Ponzi
From the May 2009 issue of Runner’s World

Ron Hill, the British Olympic marathoner, has run every day since December 1964. That streak includes running the day after a car crash in which he broke his sternum. I’m all for consistency, but that seems to cross the line into compulsivity.

In college I took one day off every week. I liked the end and beginning it created for each week. NCAA champs and Olympians have been made that way. Yet some were incredulous that any day could be squandered on rest.

Years of research disprove the notion that a day off wrecks fitness; in fact, the opposite is true. Little detraining—the loss of fitness and performance that occurs when you stop working out—happens until you take off more than two weeks. When it follows difficult bouts of work, rest lets your body adapt to the work and improve. A day off every seven to 14 days restocks glycogen stores, builds strength, and reduces fatigue. Without recovery, adaptation may occur short-term, but ultimately it will fail. And since most injuries come from overuse, a day of cross-training, rest, or easy miles can prevent three-or four-week forced breaks caused by, say, ITB syndrome.

I worked my butt off for six days to enjoy logging a zero on the seventh. I caught up on sleep and nursed soreness with massage and light stretching. The day was as crucial to training as a long run. I could push through hard workouts knowing rest was ahead. I started the new week physically and mentally restored—ready for whatever masochism awaited.

That said, I can appreciate how some find it hard to let the running shoes sit. On his rest day, German Silva, who won the 1994 and ’95 NYC Marathons, ran an easy three miles, keeping his heart rate below 60 percent of max. These jogs may not boost VO2 max, but they loosen up the muscles to fend off sluggishness.

So is a little running on a rest day okay for mere mortals? It can be. As long as you keep the volume and intensity very light, you can still get the recovery benefits. (The same goes for cross-training on a rest day: Keep it relaxed.)

Light recovery runs shouldn’t be confused with base miles you log between hard workouts. Base miles—the staple of training—strengthen muscles, build endurance, and burn fat. The key is to keep the pace conservative. Use the chart below as a guide. Then get back to work.

Less Is More

Rest days and easy days reward runners with different benefits

How It Helps:
Prevents overuse injuries
Restores glycogen stores
Prevents mental burnout

How Often: Once a week

How Easy: Off completely or 20 to 30 minutes (or 2 to 4 easy miles) below 60% of max heart rate


How It Helps:
Builds base
Improves endurance
Increases blood volume

How Often: 80 to 85% of total weekly mileage

How Easy: 70 to 75% of max heart rate or conversational pace at comfortable to moderate effort

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