In The 7 Habits
of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey writes about this scenario: You
come upon a man in the woods, working feverishly to saw down a tree. “You look
exhausted! How long have you been at it?” you ask. “Over five hours, and I’m
beat! This is hard work,” he answers. “Well, why don’t you take a break for a
few minutes and sharpen the saw? I’m sure it would go a lot faster,” you
suggest. “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically.
“I’m too busy sawing!”
When it comes to running, some of us are a bit like
this man sawing down the tree. Even though we know that rest is important, for
some reason we feel guilty when we take a rest day. Thus, some of the runners I
coach will say to me, “I have a rest day scheduled on Monday, but is it ok if I
do some light gym work or swim?” The answer is “No!” Rest and recovery are the
most important ingredients in our training programme and should be considered a
training session, just like any hill repeat, interval or long run.
OVERLOAD AND ADAPTATION
Perhaps the most important scientific training
principle that leads to improved fitness and performance is the principle of overload
and adaptation: “In order for training adaptation to take place, the intensity
of the physical activity must exceed that to which the individual is already
conditioned. The body must receive a progressive and systematic overloading.”
In other words, if we are to become stronger and faster runners, we must stress
our bodies beyond our current capacity.
However, when we do this, we effectively damage the
muscles by creating little micro-tears in them, and if we do not allow these
micro-tears to heal, we do further damage the next time we train or compete,
which results in decreased performance and injury. Therefore, the key to the
principle of overload is rest and recovery, which allows the body time to
repair these small micro-tears, which in turn makes the muscles stronger and equates
to faster and improved performances.
THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF REST
Determining exactly how much rest you need is a little
trickier, as our bodies are unique. As a rule, regardless of your level of
fitness or ability, every runner should take at least one day’s full rest a
week. For some runners, however, two days’ rest is required, and if you are
just starting out, rather include two rest days in your week. Also, if you’re
getting on in years, accept the fact that your body is not going to heal itself
as quickly as that of a 20-year-old – give your body more time to recover and
it will thank you on race day!
The key to rest is to listen to your body. If you pay
attention to what your body is telling you, then you’ll know when it’s time for
extra rest – and you will not lose any fitness or forfeit any progress by
taking a rest day. You only stand to gain from rest!
The second part of rest is active recovery, when you
continue to exercise, but in such a way that you allow the body to continue its
healing process. This might entail a swim, bike, gym or aqua-jogging session, where
you can continue building endurance or strength, but without using the same
muscles over and over. Include one or two of these sessions in your weekly
Lastly, be careful not to overstress your body.
Running hard every day is a sure way to end up injured, or sick, because your
body is not given time to repair itself, so alternate hard sessions with rest,
active rest or easy sessions. For example, a hard track session on Tuesday
would be followed by an easy 5km run on Wednesday, and a hard hill session on Thursday
can be followed by a core workout session in the gym on Friday, or a long, slow
run on Sunday followed by a full rest day on Monday. The point is, push hard in
training, but remember to take time to sharpen your saw!