Do I need a "rest day" in my training schedule?

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When reviewing an athlete’s training schedule, coaches are careful to examine the details of that schedule: pace, distance, effort, etc. We scrutinize every component of an upcoming speedwork session. We assess each warm-up and cool down routine. We analyze drills and stretches. But one aspect of training we often gloss over—and shouldn’t—is rest. 

What do I mean by rest?  Typically, coaches use the terms "rest" and "recovery" interchangeably. However, they're not really the same thing. Rest is to recovery as finger is to hand. Rest is simply one aspect of recovery during training.  Recovery is the coach's primary focus; recovery allows the body to go through supercompensation. After we stress the system, we must allow it to adapt and become stronger. It is during recovery that adaptation occurs.

So what do I mean by recovery? Recovery is the time during which your body works to return to homeostasis (or “normal”) after a stimulus. Recovery is a very individual process, which is probably why we coaches don’t do a terrific job of explaining how to go about it.

Explaining recovery is difficult because there are no ideal metrics for it. We all recover at different rates. Also, each individual recovers differently from different stimuli.  For instance, some people bounce back from track sessions faster than long runs - or vice versa. It takes coaches and athletes working together for years to create an accurate and effective plan for recovery.

So, does that mean we're doomed to years of trial and error? Not necessarily. Coaches know training, but athletes know their bodies. With a little focused observation, you can find that special recipe to help you properly recover.

Let’s break the recovery process into specific time frames.

Recovery starts as soon as we finish our training session. Whether that session is a long run, track workout, or whatever, we start recovering as soon as we take our last step. How can we speed the recovery process along?

Immediately after the workout:

  • Refuel | Immediately following a workout our bodies utilize carbs and proteins optimally to refuel and rebuild muscle tissue.  The longer we wait, the less effective the refueling process.  Many sports nutritionists recommend consuming 200–300 calories with a 3-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein. The carbohydrates are absorbed by the muscles to replenish energy stores, while the protein helps begin the process of repairing damaged muscle tissue. Sports drinks tuned for recovery are your best option; chocolate milk is a good analog.  
  • Roll and Stretch | The best time to work on loosening and lengthening tight muscles is right after your workout. By breaking up the adhesions the workout created, you can stay ahead of the injury train and bounce back more quickly.
  • Use Compression | After a workout we’re left with many micro-tears in our muscles. These tears are good because they force our muscles to grow back stronger. But they also cause edema and waste to pool in these overloaded muscles. Compression socks and tights help improve circulation and flush our systems so our muscles can recover more quickly.

The evening after the workout:

  • Hydrate and Fuel | Yes, we did a good job of refueling immediately after our workout - but we're not done yet. We need to make sure we restore a good chunk of the calories we burned through earlier that day. We also need to make sure we rehydrate. A thirsty muscle is a tight muscle. Tight muscles don't work very effectively and therefore hold us back in both recovery and during future training.
  • Sleep | Sleep is vital to the recovery process. It is one of the primary ways our bodies recover from training. We need to make sure we get as much sleep as possible so our bodies are ready to conquer the next hard workout.

The day(s) after the workout:

  • Learn to Listen | This is the part of recovery that varies the most; the part written in pencil. It is critical we learn how to listen to our bodies. Recovery in the day or two after a hard workout may mean an easy run, cross training, or taking a day off completely. It can mean re-focusing on some of the earlier recovery tactics such as rolling, refueling, or rehydrating. This is when athletes need to be honest with themselves about how they’re feeling. Coaches can help guide athletes along, but each person must learn to read his or her body. In fact, coaches rely on this individual feedback in order to properly advise their athletes going forward.

Rest may sink into the shadows of training, but it is not because it is unimportant. On the contrary. There is simply no solid, concrete, one-size-fits-all answer. But by learning how our bodies recover, we can take ownership of our training and catapult our performances to the next level. Remember: he who recovers first, wins.

Tim CaryPrior to becoming a coach, Tim Cary was a high school and collegiate athlete who always wanted to know the "why?" behind his training.  After graduating with a degree in kinesiology, that passion to learn has led Tim to amass an amazing coaching resume.  In 14 years at the high school level he coached 85 All-State athletes, 12 nationally-ranked distance relays, 8 teams that earned State Championship trophies, and a MTCCCA Distinguished Coaches Award.  Four years of college coaching were accompanied by 40 All-Americans, 6 National Champions, 3 Team National Championships, 2 National Records, 2 Conference Coach of the Year honors, and an NAIA National Coach of the Year award.  Coach Cary has also used his USATF Level 1 certification to train (1) 5 AAU/USATF National Champions, 2 of whom set National Records, (2) the Runnababex Elite development team, and (3) dozens of Boston Marathon qualifiers.

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