The Benefit of Unplanned Rest Days

The Benefit of Unplanned Rest Days

A training plan is neither inflexible nor dictatorial. If anything, most runners will see better success if they learn to train adaptively or work with a coach who guides them through the process. Runners become hesitant to take unplanned rest days even if their body is sending loud and clear signals to rest. Beyond that, many runners view a run as a cure-all for fatigue, aches, and more. However, sometimes best answer is the exact opposite: rest. 

However, unplanned rest days can be incredibly beneficial for runners. The goal of any training program is long-term growth; the goal of any runner should be sustainable running, no matter why you run. Taking an unplanned rest day – or a few – can prevent short-term issues such as injury, fatigue, or stress from manifesting into long-term problems. 

A general rule of thumb, used by both myself and numerous other coaches: Take three days off. Let your body rest.

Training requires a balance of rest and stress.  As Jack Daniels states, rest is not the avoidance of training; it is part of training. And just as sometimes you need more mileage or intensity, other times you need a bit more rest to keep the training scales in balance. 

(The three-day rule does not apply in the context of illness; if you are sick, take as many rest days as necessary for full healing and recovery.)

The Benefit of Unplanned Rest Days

The Benefit

Three days of rest permits enough time for recovery (and adaptation!) without compromising fitness. There is virtually no physiological effect on your fitness. The worst may be feeling slightly sluggish in your first run back, but that will subside after that single run (or even after a couple miles). 

If the cause is mental rather than physical, one to three days grants you extra rest and hopefully time to distance yourself from the situation. Your stress hormones have the opportunity to lower, thus making it more likely that your training is productive.

After three days off, you can resume training as is or ease back in, based on the circumstances for your brief hiatus.  

Injury

Random aches and pains crop up for virtually every runner. An achy knee, tight calf, or flare of plantar fasciitis can irritate even the healthiest runner. While you can run through some niggles, sometimes the best choice is to take three days rest in order to save more time off later. Three days off means three days of true rest: no cross-training or “active recovery” except yoga and walks. 

Generally speaking, three unplanned rest days allow inflammation to subside. Sometimes, an injury can worsen if you run on it during the acute stage. Three or so days of rest reduces the risk of the niggle from progressing into a full-blown injury. 

If the problem persists past three days of rest (and that’s true rest, no cross-training), then the injury may be more serious. Make an appointment with a doctor or a PT. (If you suspect a bone-related injury, just rest and go into the doctor as soon as possible.) 

Fatigue

Generally, a run can be more energizing. However, there are times where fatigue warrants rest. First off, it is vital to rest (and speak with your doctor) if you believe your fatigue is associated with illness. For training fatigue or fatigue due to poor sleep, rest is beneficial. Rest lowers the effects of fatigue, thus making your training more productive and preventing overtraining. 

Poor sleep is a legitimate reason to skip a run; likewise, a series of nights of inadequate sleep can warrant a few unplanned rest days. Examples of this can be bouts of insomnia, a sleep regression or teething with a baby, or heavy work/family demands that subtract sleep. If poor sleep is related to high stress, rest will certainly benefit you. 

High Levels of Stress

Stress takes a tremendous physical toll on the body. Your heart rate is higher and your stress hormones spike. The body cannot distinguish physical stress from mental stress, meaning that a hard workout during a stressful week may only make you feel worse. 

During highly stressful times (think the 2020 election or a rough week at work), a few days of unplanned rest can be highly beneficial. Give yourself the opportunity to sleep in a bit more. If you feel like doing something, practice yoga or take a walk. 

Is There Such Thing as Too Many Unplanned Rest Days?

Both yes and no. If you need rest, you should take it. Life can go through seasons that warrant more rest: health issues (including mental health), parenting a baby, and high stress for several reasons. Take rest as you need; running will be there. 

However, if you find you need frequent unplanned rest days due to training fatigue, injuries or aches, and mental burnout, then you may want to reconsider the appropriateness of your training load.

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Do you take unplanned rest days when needed?

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9 Responses

  1. This is excellent advice, Laura. I’m a big believer of taking a full day off every week.
    I can’t remember when I last took 3 days of complete rest in a row. I think I will try that this month just to see how it feels like.

  2. It can be so hard to take an unplanned rest day! I know they are important and won’t derail fitness, but as a type A person I like to follow a plan or at least get in my planned runs for the week. But you are so right. And I think thats why having a coach can be so helpful. Its easier for an outsider to see that you need a few days off and make that recommendation.

  3. I see so many runners not taking rest days; in fact, I see the term ‘active rest’ tossed around. I don’t get that. To me, rest is rest.

    Curious tho, why 3 days? What kind of evidence is there, if any, to support that?

  4. I believe that the biggest mistake my running friends make is not taking proper rest after racing or just when they feel they need it. I have definitely been guilty of this myself and I have made a concerted effort to take more rest days. It’s not easy though!

  5. Thanks for the article, I have trouble justifying taking days off but I guess it does have benefits.
    Question: I am a sophomore in high school and I just finished my first cross country season. These past three months are the first time I have been competing, but I have been running for about 3 years. I am more of a long distance person and I love taking long 8 or 10 mile runs in nature by myself, so cross country was definitely a change. Before my season, I averaged about 35 miles a week, but during my season my mileage dropped to about 20-25 as I focused on shorter distances and speed. As the final race of my season, I raced in the XC State Championships last weekend. I was really excited to PR and break 19:20 but it ended up being a rough race for me and I did not do as well as everyone expected. Now, I am being told I need to take time off to recover, but I don’t feel like dropping my mileage significantly or taking a week off is reasonable. Afterall, I only raced 5k, not a marathon, and I didn’t even reach my goal. I am so excited to get back into long distance shape and I don’t want to loose the fitness that I have. Have any suggestions?

  6. Love this post, Laura! I’m in the middle of some unplanned rest days right now. I think stress had a great deal to do with it. As usual, I felt fine — until suddenly I didn’t.

    I like the 3 day rule. As hard as it seems to take that rest, I know that it really won’t make a big difference in the larger scheme of things.

  7. Great tips. I used to be afraid to take unplanned rest days. I seriously felt that if I took a few days off I might not return to running. Silly, I know, and probably obsessive (this was years ago and yes, I was). These days I take my extra day or two of rest without guilt. I understand that if I need it, it’s the best thing to do.

  8. Rest is something so easy to overlook. I love the idea of rest days, but I am awful about taking them. I feel like I will get so far behind, which is nonsense. I never said I was a reasonable person :O)

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