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.)
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.
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.)
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.
Runners’ Round Up
Mile by Mile, Confessions of a Mother Runner, Runs with Pugs, Coach Debbie Runs, and I host the weekly Runner’s Round-Up link-up. Each week, join in a link-up for running posts.
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Do you take unplanned rest days when needed?