Athletic woman rests on her back with her legs up on the wall
(Photo: Getty Images)

Why You Need Running Downtime and How to Make the Most of It

Without adequate recovery—easy days, sleep, downtime—training adaptations go down the tubes.

Athletic woman rests on her back with her legs up on the wall
Getty Images

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Rest means recovery, and FYI, rest is not laziness. It is the time when your body adapts to training — when you reap the rewards of work, like a farmer harvesting a crop. Without adequate recovery — including easy days, sleep, and total rest — training adaptations go down the tubes. Your muscles, nerves, bones, fascia, and mind need this time to repair before they can progress, strengthen, or improve. Certain activities, like swimming, jogging, and yin yoga, can aid in your recovery by promoting circulation and relaxation. Mobility and stretching are other so-called active recovery methods, which we’ll cover in a minute. The best example of rest is the kind where you truly rest, doing little to no exercise. If the word rest rubs you the wrong way, think of it as recharge time. No matter what you call it, it is essential to realizing your potential.

Depending on your age, how long you’ve been running, and where you are in a training cycle, you might need more or less rest. As you get stronger or fitter, you might notice that you recover faster. (Woo-hoo!) That means you’ll feel less sore and tired between runs and stronger heading into your key workouts.

Running Downtime

What do you do when you’re not running? Maybe eat, sleep, read, go to school, TikTok, hang with the fam, work? Regardless, everything you do adds up. Imagine your time and energy like a pie. Each activity takes up a slice. You have only one pie. And it’s on you to slice it up, whether it’s pumpkin or cherry. The reality? No one can “do it all,” and your body doesn’t distinguish between stressors like school activities, family drama, and running hard. Stress is stress. Knowing that, what is your biggest slice?

Remember: To make the most of running, especially with the 27,593 other things you have going on, you need to protect a slice for rest and recovery. When you’re resting, know you don’t have to be busy recovering — say, ice bathing, foam-rolling, or scouring best-in-state times. Give yourself a break! Consider giving your social media scrolling a break, too. Quieting your mind and body is as important as pushing and moving them. In stillness, you are able to fill the reservoirs of energy you need to perform. Research suggests that silent downtime can help restore your brain, nerves, energy, heart, and lungs. When we get quiet and are free from distractions, we are able to better hear our own powerful voice within: intuition.

Sleep, Sweet Sleep

Sleep is where the magic happens. There are many tools and gadgets that are promoted as recovery tools, but the best use of your downtime? Good, solid shut-eye.

Sleep is recovery for life and training. Without sufficient sleep, well-being is compromised. Lack of sleep can affect performance, academics, judgment, and even bone health. It may also affect whether you get hurt or sick.

Do you feel tired or sleepy during the day? Studies show that most teenagers fall short on sleep. Experts suggest at least 9 to 10 hours of sleep for optimal development and recovery. You’ll know you’re getting enough when you wake up feeling rested and when you can stay alert during the day. Research suggests that athletes who get quality sleep have better reaction times, decision-making, and endurance. Sleep also allows your growth hormones to get to work, improving both mental and physical development, recovery and adaptations from training, and even your mood. You’ll feel better — and do better in school, running, and relationships — if you get a good night’s sleep.

You might have trouble falling asleep, especially after hard or long efforts. Or you might be stuck with a routine that doesn’t fit with your natural sleep tendencies (especially if you’re a night owl forced to wake up at the crack of dawn for school). That’s tough, but there are ways to get more — even if it means taking a quick siesta or giving up a show or social media time. If you’re suffering from insomnia or chronically tired, get checked out by a doc.

To improve the quality of your z’s, try the following suggestions.

Create a sleep cave. The best environment for sleeping is a cool, dark, quiet space. Get an alarm clock so you can keep your phone elsewhere; it’s distracting and disruptive to a good night’s sleep.

Design a bedtime routine. Try to stick to a regular schedule with bed- and wake-up times. Create sleep-inducing habits: An hour or two before bed, turn off screens. Limit blue light, which disrupts your body’s sleep mechanisms, or set a filter on your phone or computer if you must be on it late. Wind down with relaxing activities, like foam-rolling, journaling, doodling, listening to chill music, or taking a warm bath. Have a snack or soothing warm drink with protein (think: warm milk) to promote muscle recovery.

Pass on supplements. If you consume caffeine, stop by noon. Also, know that over-the-counter supplements and prescription medications can interfere with your sleep cycle, so be aware of potential side effects. The jury’s out on how sleep aids affect performance. Even some teas could give you wacky dreams, so err on the side of caution.

Nap if you can. Even a short snooze can improve your energy and mood. Aim to keep naps to no more than 30 minutes, earlier in the day, to avoid staring at the ceiling at night.

Give yourself a break. Find little ways to take a break where you can. Even if you’re working hard on a paper or rushing from track to choir, can you lie down for a minute? Just putting your legs up the wall for five minutes can be restorative. Consider whether that essay will be more coherent if you wake up early instead of burning the midnight oil.

Rest Days: Chill Out!

Rest days are the best days. There are two types: rest days that include some light activity, such as a very easy jog or swim or stretching; and rest days that are totally off — in other words, no cross-training, no nothing. With all the growing you are doing as a young athlete, we highly recommend the latter at least once per week. As Melody recommends, No stress, just rest. Doing nothing may be a weird feeling at first, but we promise you’ll get the hang of it and probably come to really enjoy it.

How many rest days you need changes over time. For example, in middle school, a healthy plan might be to run two to four days a week, play other sports on other days, and keep at least one total rest day. In high school, you might run up to five days a week, with one day a week for cross-training and one total rest day.

No matter your age, taking a totally restorative day per week, with no exercise or workouts, can encourage both physical and mental recovery. Especially as you are growing, your body — muscles, nerves, bones, and brain — needs time to recover from all that you’ve done in training (and everything else you’re busy with). How much time you need to recover depends on a bunch of factors, including sleep, nutrition, how long you’ve been running, and stress levels. Listen to your body’s signals. Think about rest days as an investment in the work you’ve done and what’s to come. Take an extra day if you need it. Trust us, you’ll emerge restored and refreshed.

Adapted from Girls Running: All You Need to Strive, Thrive, and Run Your Best by Melody Fairchild and Elizabeth Carey, with permission of VeloPress.

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Getty Images