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What is a rest day? - Part 1 of 3

The other day, I completed the Boston Athletic Association Half Marathon. It goes without saying that this was by far the toughest physical (and mental) challenge I have done to date. I was advised to be diligent about scheduling rest days as part of my training, and honest with myself when I needed more rest.

Up until I started training for the race, the most I had ever run was 5 miles. Sometimes after a particularly demanding week, I would be so sore I couldn’t move. It became clear that only one rest day was not enough. For several weeks in the middle of my training, I limited my mileage, did less weight lifting, and take more rest days.

When it was suggested to me that I do this, I found it counter-intuitive. How would not running help my running? Surprisingly, it did. When I got back into longer distance runs I found that my pace was 10 seconds faster, and I wasn’t feeling nearly as fatigued. So, what gives?

What is rest?

No, rest does not mean sitting on the couch all day.

Have you ever noticed how you feel after a particularly rigorous workout, then sit at your desk all day? The soreness seems to be even worse, right? This is because the body requires blood flow and circulation to rebuild the connective tissues you have broken down, so it helps to move around - even if that means just going to your local mall to shop, or taking a walk in the park.

This is what we call an active rest day, meant to be a light or easy day where you’re still moving, but not at your normal intensity. If you are a newer exerciser, a walk around the block might be fine. If you are more experienced, consider lifting some weights, but a smaller load or intensity than usual. The key is to not challenge your body.

Why is rest is important for exercise?

Contrary to what you may think, you actually don’t get stronger while you are working out. You get stronger when you rest and recover. The act of working out tears down muscle fibers, and it is when you rest that they rebuild stronger than before. Hence the term “shredded”, or “ripped” that we often say when referring to people who are extremely toned and strong.

So, if we only get stronger in recovery, wouldn’t it make sense for us to prioritize rest just as much as hitting the gym? Surprisingly, many of us don’t - myself included. Not resting can be counterproductive to the gains you are trying to make.

Next Week - Learn to notice 6 signs that you need more rest.