Kenya is home to some of the fastest, most dedicated runners in the world. Before the sun even rises in Iten—a small village in the Rift Valley that attracts elites and aspiring elites in droves—hundreds of men and women can be found jogging the dirt roads that extend in every direction from town.
They put their longest miles in early, when temperatures are best and traffic is minimal. Most will add on a recovery run in the afternoon; a select few may even do a third. Mileage ranging from 80 to 140 per week is common, and it will feature a steady blend of fartleks, track sessions, hills and long runs, all at a lung-searing altitude of almost 8,000 feet.
This is how the best runners in the world train 11 months out of the year. As for the 12th?
Yes, rest. Some elites don’t run a step for a month, six weeks, or more. Others enjoy less structure, running if and when the mood strikes. The physical labor of planting crops or fixing up things around the shamba may replace running for those who have been training far from home. Resting wouldn’t be such an interesting phenomenon except that it seems to go against so much of what we practice in the use-it-or-lose-it United States.
It also begs a big question: How do you take an extended break from running but still manage to improve the next training cycle?
Why You Should Rest From Running
Have you ever heard the adage that improvements in fitness are only made when resting? It’s true. Through a pretty incredible process called supercompensation, the body responds to stress (like a long run or hard workout) by going above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to making repairs.
If you rest sufficiently in between hard sessions, your body will not only adapt to the workload but increase your fitness specific to the ways you challenged it. Running shorter, faster reps will make you more proficient at speed. Long runs increase endurance. This is the hallmark of all training.
Generally, when we talk about sufficient rest from running, we are talking about getting off the feet as much as possible and running easily between hard workouts. With the harder sessions triggering hormonal responses (think: growth hormone), down time allows your body to handle necessary repairs and improve your fitness.
The problem is that it’s not a perfectly linear system. You can’t just keep getting better and better and better ad infinitum. There comes a point where the body needs a true recovery, a chance to rest and consolidate all the gains of the previous training. Sometimes these periods happen against our will, like in the case of an injury or illness. Straining your calf may sideline you in the short-term, but three weeks later you feel better rested and more energetic than before.
Ideally, you would skip a forced layoff and have a designated rest period in mind. It could be after a goal race or during a time of year when the weather is worst (hello, February in New England!). Besides offering a respite from the mental stress of training, this break offers an opportunity for you to fully “absorb” the training, as the great Australian marathon Rob De Castella phrased it. This is the chance for supercompensation to go into overdrive. Although some short-term fitness gains may be lost in the process, the longer-term picture is rosier for it.
How to Rest From Running
How you rest is determined by your long-term goals, personality type and motivation. A classic Type B personality may be happy for a respite and take the opportunity to play around with other hobbies during the break. A Type A with a big race a few months out might go stir crazy in such a scenario and crave the goal-oriented structure that running provides. With that in mind, here are several different ways to recover after a long season.
- 7 to 10 days off: In coaching high schoolers, post-collegiates and age groupers, I have one common request at the end of a long season: take a week or week-and-a-half off. This break is long enough for your body to do some much-needed repairs but short enough that your aerobic fitness has only dropped a few percentage points (and those points will be made up in a week). To make this more effective, slowly progress back to your regular training volume over a two-to-three week period after the rest. This will help ensure you stay healthy and motivated.
- Every other day off for two weeks: For athletes who don’t want to just sit on the couch watching Netflix, another option is to block off a two-week period and only run every other day during it for 20 to 30 minutes. This works especially well for runners who have a more compulsive bent, as you still get the satisfaction of running a few times each week, but with a significantly reduced workload that allows for major healing.
- Longer break: If your body is begging you to stop because of injuries or fatigue, now is the time to heed the call. Running stubbornly through injuries only lasts for so long before everything comes crashing down. And overtraining, which could just as easily be called “under-recovering,” can have long-term ramifications if not addressed. Instead of going in with a fixed deadline on when you’ll resume training, rest until you feel 100 percent. Your body—and mind—will thank you.
How to Stay in Shape While Resting
One of the most common reasons runners don’t take time off is the fear of getting out of shape. While it’s true that a few weeks of inactivity will produce a minor decrease in cardiovascular fitness, this is usually offset by gains made during recovery and a quick return to normal aerobic levels.
If, however, sitting around is not an option, here are some other ways to keep your heart and lungs humming. Because this is supposed to be all about recovery, don’t worry about training longer or harder in these sessions as you would when cross training through an injury.
- Water running: The most similar to running in terms of biomechanics, water running allows you to mimic the dry land version with no impact stress on your muscles and joints. Though your heart rate will be lower, water running is a great way your legs and arms in sync.
- Cycling: Whether outside or on a trainer, cycling is a leg-intense aerobic exercise that offers many of the same benefits of running. Road cycling and mountain biking allow you to be in the great outdoors and take on the elements and topography just like running. Smart trainers attached to TVs allow you to virtually experience terrain from anywhere in the world, including iconic stages of the Tour de France.
- Swimming: Though you’ll likely be confined to a pool, the rhythmic, almost meditative qualities of swimming laps can mimic the mindset runners fall into. It may take a few trips to the pool to find a groove, but once you become one with your stroke you may find it a welcome addition to your fitness family.
- Elliptical: Like all the other activities listed above, it’s non-weight bearing and good at targeting the cardiovascular system. It also uses muscles in a similar manner to running.
- Cross-country skiing: The only activity that can match running when it comes to sustained calorie burning, cross-country skiing gets its extra burn from being intense in both the lower and upper body muscles. If you live in a place with groomed trails, now is the time to experience the beauty of the backcountry.