I was looking over one of your online training plans for a 5K race and I noticed that there was only one scheduled day off every four weeks. I’ve always been taught that any exercise program should include one rest day every week. Can you please explain your rationale for breaking this rule?
Contrary to what you’ve been taught, runners do not spontaneously combust on their seventh consecutive day of exercise. Nor do they necessarily become overwhelmed by fatigue or suffer an injury. In fact, there are lots and lots of runners who routinely train seven days a week without negative consequence.
The notion that a weekly day of rest is necessary is based on tradition, not on scientific or real-world assessment of the actual effects of exercising six versus seven days a week. If you cast aside tradition and look at the evidence, it’s clear that a weekly day off is neither inherently better nor inherently worse than a schedule in which rest days occur less frequently. In some cases, athletes fare better with a weekly day off; in others, they fare better with less frequent rest. And almost any runner can make either type of schedule work for him or her.
When is a day off every week the better way to go? Runners who are not accustomed to running every day typically can’t handle running every day. The tissues of their lower extremities and perhaps also their nervous and endocrine systems do not fully recover between daily workouts, such that, after six days, their bodies really need 48 hours to restore a healthy equilibrium.
Most any runner who sets a goal to be able to run every day can get there, though. You just have to ease into it. For example, run six days a week until it’s a piece of cake. Then maybe add a gentle walk or elliptical workout on the seventh day. Once you can absorb that without missing a beat, insert a very short run on day seven. Gradually increase the duration of that run until your can comfortably run every day. Ta-da!
All runners need rest, of course. Even the fittest and most experienced runners can get into trouble if they try to go more than four weeks or so without a solid rest day. Rest is relative, though. For the runner who typically runs twice a day for a total of 15 miles, a day with a single run of six miles may count as a legitimate “relative rest” day.
Even less serious runners can take advantage of the relative rest phenomenon. Let’s say you typically run six miles a day, six days a week. The last day of the week could be a day off—or it could be a day with a moderate-intensity 30-minute stationary bike ride. As modest a workout as that relative rest session is, it will burn about 300 calories and give you a meaningful aerobic stimulus that, after many weeks of repetition, could add up to a measurable difference in your peak race performance.
Again, though, any athlete can make a schedule with one weekly rest day work. For example, back in the 1980s Dave Scott used to cram 40,000 yards of swimming, 400 miles of cycling, and 60 miles of running into six days, taking most Sundays off. Naturally, if you try to pack too much training into six days you can still manage to overtrain even with a full day of rest. So whether you decide to take a day off every week or not—and it’s really up to you—it’s important to make sure that your overall training schedule balances work and rest in the way that works best for your body.
It’s also important to always listen to your body. Whether you normally go just six days or 27 days without a planned day of rest, you should break from that routine and take a day off immediately whenever your body tells you it needs it.