Updated: March 17th, 2023
How do you know if you need a rest day?

We’ve all heard those phrases at least once in our lives; ‘no days off’ and ‘no pain no gain’ but is that, honestly, the best approach to training? Taking time to recover is not a bad thing, at all – it’s actually rather essential. Rest gives our body time to restore after whatever race, training session or the intense day we’ve had. Subsequently, not enough rest leads to injury, burn out and fatigue.

Of course, there is an option of active recovery, gentle movement that helps promote recovery, such as yoga and swimming or leisurely bike rides, but knowing when to utilise active recovery or a full rest day could make the difference to your training.

How do you know when’s best to rest? Your body will let you know – from feeling lethargic, heavy-legged and low mood to a higher than usual heart rate. Because sometimes it’s better to see the numbers to believe it – data doesn’t lie after all.

So here are some things to keep an eye out for, so you know when to take a rest day.

  • The pain changes
  • When good pain becomes bad pain is a huge tell-tale sign. And yes there is such a thing called ‘good pain’ – it’s the type that comes from adjusting to training loads. Delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS) is to be expected following new movements, changing in training volume and/or intensity or returning to exercise after some time off. The micro-tears in the worked muscles require a few days of low-intensity, active recovery. DOMS would also benefit from light stretching and mobility work to help alleviate the soreness and stiffness.

    However, when that kind of muscular pain is sharp, impacts your range of movement, and is accompanied by swelling, and bruising then it is time to stop and take some full recovery days. These are signs of inflammation from any type of injury, so it needs time to heal – that goes for muscle, bone, ligaments or tendons. It can be an old injury resurfacing, likewise, it could also be a more serious muscle tear, stress fracture or tendon injury pathologies – all of which require rest.

    Runner holding her leg in pain

  • Poor quality sleep
  • Sleep is the key to a lot – from energy levels to mood, muscle building and recovery time. It should be a crucial factor when making training decisions such as ‘I’ve slept for 4 hours last night, should I train?’ No. You will not gain anything by working out on little to no sleep.

    Sleep is imperative, and you can monitor this through some Garmin watches or a wearable sleep tracker. Yes, it isn’t 100% accurate but it helps you understand how much, or how little good quality sleep you get. New parents, please take note and do not put too much pressure on yourself to train when your little one is getting you up all through the night.

    Woman sleeping

  • Joints that ache more than usual
  • Hitting the longer distances, you’re bound to get achy joints but getting them more often can indicate that your muscles are not absorbing the impact, and putting too much pressure on the joints to absorb it instead. Long term this can lead to cartilage injuries so please don’t continue ‘through it’ you are overtraining and that won’t get any better unless you rest.

    Woman holding her legs in exhaustion

    How to prevent over training

    Too much of anything isn’t good for you, and that goes for exercise too, but I get it – it’s not always easy to tell whether you’ve overdone it on the training front. Feeling sore, fatigued but also like you can’t take a day off? You may be due a few rest days if you check your history.

    Tracking your workouts, checking the history or pre-planning a schedule to see how active you have been throughout the week or month is a sore fire way to make sure you don’t overtrain. If you’re not sure, and not actually training for a race (where the race plan does it for you) then consider using your training watch.

    If you’re using the Polar Ignite. Based on how well your body was able to recover during the night, the Polar Ignite tells you when to take a rest day and offers you personalized training suggestions so you’ll know when to opt for low-intensity supportive exercises instead of a hard workout session.

    Likewise, if you’re using a Garmin, after each workout it will tell you how many hours of rest are needed to recover from that session, to avoid overtraining.

    Runner looking at his watch whislt running

    What do I need to do to recover?

    If you’re at this point of the article, I’m assuming you decided you need to take a day or two to rest and recover. Well done you. But what do you do?

    There are tons of ways to recover and whilst there are tips and tricks, it is a very personal part of training. Some need to sleep more, others need to ice bath while others can’t hack the cold and need to include heat in recovery. But, here are some things to get you started:

    Active recovery:

  • Brisk walk
  • Slow swim
  • Leisurely bike ride
  • Yoga
  • Very, very slow jog
  • Elliptical machine

Full-on rest day:

  • Longer sleep or include a nap in the day
  • Ice bath
  • Contrast bathing (ice followed by heat and repeated on a specific area)
  • Stretch
  • Yin yoga
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