The Importance of Rest for Runners

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One of the most common mistakes rookie runners make is not getting enough rest, or “downtime,” as it’s known in the running community, between lengthy training portions or after marathons.

Putting your training on hold after a spectacular race sounds counter-intuitive, to say the least. You want to make the most of your fitness and keep setting new personal records. Similarly, after a poor race, the last thing on your mind is to relax; instead, you crave vengeance and are eager to return to the starting line.

Type-A personalities are common among runners. Taking an unneeded day off—or, worse, a week off—is about as pleasurable as a root canal at the dentist. Some runners have the unfounded notion that skipping a few runs will significantly reduce their fitness and that taking five to seven days off will entirely undo all of their previous months’ hard work.

Unfortunately, not getting adequate rest after a large race or a lengthy training section can lead to training plateaus and stagnant racing results. Not only would taking a seven- to ten-day break have no detrimental influence on your present fitness, but the long-term improvements you’ll be able to achieve will allow you to continue to improve year after year without overtraining.

Why Do You Need a Rest Period After a Race?

It makes no difference if your major training emphasis was a single large marathon or you recently completed a long training segment that included a range of small events. To truly recuperate from and assimilate the months of training you’ve put in, your body needs a long time of rest. If you don’t take the time to recuperate properly, you’ll almost certainly reach a plateau in your training.

Because the length of shorter racing segments varies from runner to runner, determining the cumulative training effect and resulting stress on the body can be challenging. On the other hand, the marathon distance provides a continuous variable that runners may use to track how specific physiological systems are harmed throughout a single race.

Why You Need Downtime?

Skeletal Muscle

One scientific study looked at the damage done to the calf muscles during a marathon run and found that extensive preparation for, and the marathon itself, generates inflammation and muscle fiber necrosis, considerably impairing muscular power and durability.

This research shows that your muscles are unquestionably weakened and will require a lengthy recovery before you can resume the entire exercise. The requirement for break extends to any strenuous training session since this study also looked at calf muscles throughout an extended training block.

Cellular damage

The presence and generation of creatinine kinase (CK), a marker that shows damage to skeletal and cardiac tissue, as well as elevated myoglobin levels in the blood, are the most significant indicators of cellular damage after a marathon.

One research found that CK damage lingered for more than seven days after a marathon, while another found that myoglobin was present in the circulation for 3-4 days after the run. Both studies show that the body needs rest after a marathon to heal from the cellular damage sustained during the race effectively.

These signs of intense training and racing, unlike muscular aches, aren’t usually apparent. This is why, even if you don’t feel sore, you should rest after a lengthy training segment or marathon.

Immune system

Finally, studies have shown that the immune system is significantly weakened after running a marathon, increasing the chance of catching colds and the flu.

One of the most common reasons for overtraining is a weakened immune system. As a result, neglecting a necessary rest break may result in disrupted training, later on jeopardizing your long-term objectives.

What Professional Runners Do

While scientific data supports training assumptions, professional runners are possibly the most visible example of the necessity of rest. The world’s most outstanding trainers guide elite runners, and their livelihood is dependent on constant training and racing.

Even professional runners who make a career by competing in races take breaks after marathons and extensive training sessions. For example, Dathan Ritzehein wrote a blog post about the need for rest after a tough training session. At the same time, Alberto Salazar stated that famous track athletes Galen Rupp and Mo Farah would be taking two weeks off following successful track seasons.

Why Taking a Break Isn’t Harmful to Your Fitness

It’s not difficult to persuade a runner that a marathon or lengthy training segment is physically demanding. It’s another thing entirely to convince the same runner that taking seven to ten days off to relax won’t harm their fitness. While it may seem counterintuitive, studies have shown that taking a seven to ten-day break does not dramatically reduce fitness.

The Science of Rest

The most appropriate baseline to compare the effect of detraining on your aerobic system is VO2 max, which is one of the most significant markers of a runner’s physical fitness. In a nutshell, VO2 max refers to a person’s maximal ability to transport and utilize oxygen when exercising.

In well-trained runners, recent studies demonstrate only a minor decline in VO2max (1 to 3%) in the first six to seven days after inactivity. Furthermore, studies suggest that even after two weeks of not jogging, VO2 max drops by just 6%.

While statistics seem impressive, what do they truly mean to runners? Consider the case of a 20-minute 5K runner. The VO2max of a 20-minute 5K runner is around 49.81 ml/kg/min. The hypothetical 5k runner would lose roughly 3% of their VO2 max after seven to ten days of no jogging. As a result, their new VO2max would be 48.49 after rest, and they would now be in 20:30 form.

Elite Runners’ Anecdotal Evidence

Fortunately, this minor loss of fitness is quickly regained. Top runners can return to rigorous training and near-peak racing form in as little as three to four weeks.

Meb Keflezighi is maybe the finest example of a runner returning to peak fitness rapidly. Meb was forced to relax for three weeks after the 2012 New York City Marathon due to an unexpected foot injury. With only 70 days to train for one of the most important races of his life, the 2012 Olympic Trials, Meb rapidly restored his fitness to dispatch one of the most prestigious fields in US history and punch his ticket to London.

How Long Should You Plan to Rest

Most coaches and top runners recommend taking one week off after completing a 5K training cycle, seven to ten days off after completing a 10k or half marathon, and two weeks off after completing a marathon. It may seem that being careful would hold you back, yet being careful will enhance your long-term growth.

Good luck in your upcoming race, and remember to set aside some time for recovery and leisure afterward.

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