As hard charging, fiercely driven, superhero ultrarunners, we love to pile up the miles, train until we drop and skimp on rest days. But one of the great ironies about long-distance running is that the resting done between runs can be just as important as the runs themselves.
Becoming a stronger runner involves breaking down and rebuilding muscle tissue. Rob the muscles of their chance to regenerate and you risk muscle tears, overuse injuries and permanent damage. Too little rest can also lead to burnout and overtraining symptoms such as an elevated resting heart rate, insomnia, lasting muscle soreness and a sharp decline in motivation.
The bottom line in any running program is going to be how many days on and how many days off you run per week. Many runners gravitate to four and three, that is, four days of running and three days resting. This schedule makes for very solid training; it gives you a day off after almost every day you run. It involves enough running to allow you to improve if you make some of the workouts more challenging, yet it is not likely to be demanding enough to push you into overtraining or burnout.
Cut out a day of running from this schedule to only three running days a week and you have a more relaxed program, really a maintenance schedule. This level of running will allow you to maintain your base fitness, will not lead to overtraining or burnout and will probably allow you stress-free running for years to come. You will not, however, be able to progress much in terms of adding stamina, speed or distance to your running unless you are doing something unusual, like making all three days long distance runs or particularly challenging workouts.
Add a day of running to the typical fouron, three-off weekly schedule, so you are running five days a week and resting for only two, and you are into aggressive training territory. Two days of resting a week may not be adequate for full muscle recovery, especially if you push each workout fairly hard. On this schedule, you’ll need to monitor yourself for signs of overtraining. Also, you should add periodicity to your training by cycling through hard weeks and easy weeks. A typical pattern is taking an easy week after every three or four hard weeks of training. Do no more than half your usual mileage during the easy week.
Whatever your weekly schedule, be sure to take a rest day after a very intensive workout or after a long run when your need for recovery is greatest. And don’t cheat yourself out of a good rest on the rest days. Some walking is fine, but taking an “easy” run on your rest day defeats the purpose. Also, don’t use your rest day for hard cross training activity. If you are going to do 20 gnarly miles on your mountain bike, substitute that activity for one of your runs rather than kill the restorative benefits of the rest day.
A lot of runners like to take a seasonal break from running. Not surprisingly, this often corresponds with winter: the holiday season, the worst of the ice and snow and a time when there are not many events going on. A yearly break can do wonders for your attitude about running. Your motivation and excitement about getting back on the trails will build and build.
You want to avoid, however, stopping your running completely during a long break. A couple of maintenance runs a week will preserve your fitness level and keep you from having to start all over when you resume your training. Or you can go strictly to your cross training activity during your break. Cross training also preserves fitness and leaves you eager to get back to running when the ice melts.
Go ahead and run hard when you run, but when you rest, be sure to give it a rest.