Maxing out this minimal training day
"Coach, I see tomorrow is labeled as a "Rest Day." Does that mean I shouldn't do anything? I was thinking of going on a short hike with my girlfriend. Is that OK or will I mess up the schedule?"
After receiving a message like this from athletes a few times, I realized that my oversimple "rest day" prescription failed to communicate not only the purpose but also the importance of these days. Does it mean not to run? Should I sleep? Can I lift? Ho about a short run? Certainly for many runners — at least those like running, or are driven, or have lots of energy — taking a day with no activity is not only challenging but can also be frustrating!
Let's be clear: the purpose of the rest day is to give the body a small chance to recover from the recent efforts or prepare it for the efforts in the coming days. Remember that the body adapts or gets stronger when we recover, not when we work. The hard efforts of training break the body down, and rest days along with easy weeks are needed to allow the body to rebuild even stronger. So at a minimum, a rest day must not add stress!
But there certainly a number of ways to enhance the rest days. One effect of the rest day is to allow the body time to clear waste byproducts from the muscles. This process is enhanced with increased blood flow. Blood flow also helps to bring beneficial nutrients to repair muscles and soft tissue. This is why active recovery can be more beneficial than complete rest.
There are a number of low-intensity activities you can do to help achieve these benefits. Walking, light yoga, or dynamic stretching are simple an effective such activities. I have one athlete that enjoys an easy bike ride on his rest days. Swimming is also a great option, but only if you are keeping it very easy and relaxed. Finally, if you happen to have a electrical muscle stimulator you can use it to generate low-intensity muscle contractions to aid blood flow. To go with all of this waste clearing and nutrient delivery, make sure you are drinking plenty of water.
Another way to enhance blood flow while also helping you relax is the enjoyable warm bath. The warm water along with the slight compression from the water will promote that blood flow we seek. To really kick the bath benefits up a notch, add in 1-2 cups of Epsom salt. The magnesium from the salt can enhance relaxation and reduce inflammation.
Speaking of heat, what about a nice sweaty sauna session? Well that depends. If you are an infrequent sauna user, then I would skip it on a rest day. The extreme heat of the sauna is likely to trigger a stress response from the body, and the heavy sweating can lead to slightly dehydration which is also a stressor. So while the sauna will be effective at relaxing muscles and increasing blood flow, it will ultimately be a stressful experience for the body.
The same can be said for an ice bath. An ice bath is effective at helping decrease inflammation as well as assist with cardiovascular and nervous system recovery. However, if you don't frequent the ice bath, your body may struggle to deal with the extreme cold. For both sauna and ice baths, I do recommend that you include them in your routine so they can become an effective recovery tool on rest days once your body gets used to the experience.
Getting back to blood flow and relaxing muscles, we certainly need to put massage on the list. This could mean a traditional massage with a therapist, but it could also be self-massage, myofascial release with a roller or ball, or even using one of the new percussion massage guns. In all of these instances, remember that it must be light massage. Deep massage can be painful and stressful to the body, so keep it light on rest days.
Of course eating good foods is a key input to proper recovery, and that extends to rest days as well. However, I often see athletes try to dramatically cut down on calories on these off days believing that without a hard workout their caloric needs are reduced. That math certainly checks out; however, it is important to make sure the body has plenty of nutrition to aid in that muscle and tissue repair. While you may not be working hard on a rest day, your body is busy rebuilding and it needs the materials to do so.
If you are really a type-A runner and you just can't imagine a day of not running, then a rest day is a great time to work on your running form. We teach a number of drills to our athletes that help with proper running form and will also provide a little increase in heart rate to get that blood flowing. This type of simple activity provides a big benefit that is compounded over time to dramatically improve your running results.
A rest day is also a good time to invest in the other areas of your life that may get slightly neglected as a result of your training schedule. Family and friends, chores around the house, or even other personal interests typically get short-changed when the workout schedule is full. With that extra free time on rest day, think about making breakfast for your family, staying out late with friends, mowing the lawn (which also involves walking), or getting back to that instrument you wanted to learn. It will be time well spent.
Let's talk about a few things definitely NOT to do on a rest day. While I suggested getting some things done around the house, you should definitely not tackle any projects that will provide the type of stress you would get from a workout. This would defeat the purpose of the rest day! So skip chopping all that wood or digging the new flower bed. Also try to avoid mentally or emotionally stressful tasks. To the body, stress is stress no matter what form it takes.
So, when you see "Rest Day" on your training plan, it doesn't have to mean laying on the couch all day — unless that's your thing.