One of the good things to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic is an increase in physical activity – more people are reportedly enjoying exercise than before the world went into lockdown.
If you are one of the many people who are new to running, your focus will probably be on training – when, how often, and how much? But your rest and recovery between training runs is as important as running itself. Despite this, rest often gets overlooked and forgotten. So if you’re just starting out on your running adventure, it’s worth thinking carefully about the quality and quantity of your down-time.
Why does rest matter? As I explained in ‘Be your own coach’, the cycle of training and adaptation is what makes you faster and fitter over time. So it is not just training that makes you faster – the adaptation afterwards is just as important, and good rest and recovery helps this.
There are many different processes that take place during rest, for example replenishing glycogen (energy) stores, repair of muscle fibres, and production of new blood cells among others. And training is not the only thing your body has to recover from – the stresses and strains of daily life including work have to be left behind during rest periods. So rest is absolutely vital to running.
Here are five concrete steps you can take to improve your rest and recovery.
The best form of resting is sleep. This is obvious, and yet so many of us do not get enough sleep of the right quality and quantity. Things like your bedroom environment (light, temperature, noise, ventilation), pre-bedtime routine (meals, activities, screen-time) and sleep schedule (time to sleep, time to wake, consistency from day to day) are all worth revisiting to ensure you are doing your best to encourage good sleep.
The sooner you can eat and drink after training, the faster your body will start to recover. Again this ain’t rocket science, but it’s easy to get distracted and forget. Having some protein and carbohydrate (eg, a recovery smoothie) within 20 minutes of training is ideal, followed by a proper meal when time allows.
Mental down-time and recovery is as important as physical rest. Training is tough, and you need to be mentally fresh to do it. So absorbing activities that take you completely away from training, work and other commitments are important for mental regeneration. If you’re mentally burnt-out, you won’t feel like training even if your body is rested.
Self-monitoring is a useful way to spot problems early. Your resting heart-rate, enthusiasm for training, mood, energy levels, changes in body weight, and sleep quality are all parameters that can be used to monitor yourself and judge whether or not you are getting enough rest.
The ability to decide objectively when you are too tired to train is a skill that all athletes should develop. Of course you need self-discipline to train consistently, but this needs to be balanced with understanding when rest should take priority over training. Sometimes it is a difficult call. But there will be times when recovery is more important than training.
I hope I have persuaded you that rest and recovery are an essential part of a runner’s life. Intuitively, many runners just want to train more. You have to run to improve, right, so surely more is better? Well, sometimes yes, but not always. If you haven’t thought about it already, a quick assessment of the quality and quantity of the rest you’re getting may actually make you run faster.
Mara Yamauchi for World Athletics