A blog by runners. For runners.

Slow down to speed up: the importance of active rest

The importance of active rest After hard efforts, your body is inundated with waste products, which cause soreness and inflammation. Over time, your body will naturally remove these waste products and replace them with fresh, oxygenated blood. But this process can seem lengthy to a runner with itchy legs. You can expedite the recovery process with active rest, activity completed at an intensity low enough to provide restorative benefits to the body but not high enough to increase fitness.

The many forms and uses of active rest.

While coaches and runners alike use this term in different contexts, the end result and purpose is fairly similar.

  • In some marathon training plans, like the Hanson Method, easy runs that link hard workouts are considered active rest. Since runners do not complete the trusted 20-miler in this plan, their fitness is reached through cumulative fatigue. In other words, runners learn how to run on progressively tired legs, a process that mimics what runners face in the late stages of a marathon. These easy runs allow runners just enough rest to complete multiple high intensity workouts in a week.
  • Similarly, you can apply the principle of cumulative fatigue when completing an interval workout. Just run your repeat distance and lightly jog for your interval of rest.
  • As an alternative to a steady-state or progressive tempo run, Jack Daniels instructs runners to complete “floating” mile repeats at tempo pace. Between each repeat, runners “float” at a very easy pace for one minute.
  • More commonly, active rest describes a prescribed period of light activity between training seasons. Many coaches recommend taking one or two weeks of active rest to allow runners a break from the physical and psychological demands of intense training.

Here are some exercises to complete between seasons to help restore your body and keep it healthy. Pick one and stick with it or mix and match to keep your physical and mental fitness sharp.

  1. Walking: Taking time off from running to walk allows your body to heal while still engaging many of your running specific muscles. Plus, if you walk the same streets that you run, you can literally stop and smell the rosesPut the tot in the stroller, grab the pooch, and walk for 30 minutes or longer. (More about walking.)
  2. Swimming: Nothing beats the cold compression of water after a hard workout or race. Swimming is an excellent, zero-impact, full body workout. It strengthens and tones arms, legs, shoulders, glutes, and back while providing a mental and physical break from pounding the ground. Want to keep your head above water? Strap on a floatation belt or vest and try aqua jogging. (More about swimming for runners.)
  3. Yoga: Static and dynamic stretching exercises can have restorative effects. They can loosen tight muscles, strengthen arms, legs, and core, increase blood flow, and flush out harmful waste products.  (More about yoga for runners.)
  4. Cycling: Keep in mind that the point of active rest is to rest, so avoid spinning classes and “casual” 30 mile rides with your pedal-junkie friends. Focus on keeping a steady cadence of 90 RPM. (More about cycling for runners.)
  5. Light Running: If you don’t have enough love to share with other exercises, you can continue to run if you keep the intensity and exertion low. Keep your heart rate at 50-60 percent of your max. Focus on form, cadence, and comfort.

Who can benefit from active rest? No matter how many miles you log in a week, no matter how many years you have been running, no matter your future goals and past accomplishments, you are human, and your body needs rest. It is during this downtime that your body is able to heal, recover, and make adaptations. But all rest is not created equal. In some cases, if you are limping or favoring a muscle, full days of rest are needed to recover and avoid further injury. It’s better to take a planned rest than a forced one.

Written by Stephen Marcin.