The Importance of Rest Days for Runners

Lisa Jhung
Writer and Author of Running That Doesn't Suck: How To Love Running (Even If You Think You Hate It)
June 6, 2023

I’m training for my very favorite race ever, the 7.4-mile Dipsea trail race that takes place in Marin County, California on June 11. I am so fired up for this race as I’ve done it nine times and wrote a feature—a love letter, really—about it for Runner’s World years ago. I’m not always healthy this time of year, dealing with various injuries, and I’m sometimes traveling with my family in early June and unable to do the race. But this year, I’m healthy (knock on wood), and am planning to be on that starting line.

I’ve been running a fair amount and feeling good. But the key for me, especially since I’m not 25 anymore, is to be patient. Take rest days. Allow my body to heal from the work I’m doing on my running days so that I both stay healthy and get stronger.

Yes, taking rest days makes you stronger. Resting, instead of running, actually makes you a better runner.

Here’s how:

When we run, at any pace or any level and covering any distance, we create microtears in our muscle tissues. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s perfectly natural. When you give those microtears time to heal, they grow back stronger than they were before. When you don’t give them time to heal, they become stressed and that can lead to injury.

Rest days work similarly to the walk segments of you Run-Walk workouts. They allow your body to recover so that you can pick up the pace again. Applying the same theory of the Run-Walk to rest days, your overall stamina grows without injury or burnout when you give it time in between efforts.

Resting between running days also allows your ligaments and tendons to recoup. And it allows your bones, joints, and cardiovascular system to reset.

And resting gives you a mental break from training as well.

Some runners may look forward to rest days, while others champ at the bit and just want to keep training, keep loading, keep running. I’ve learned to be patient and imagine my body repairing itself so I can go back out and get in a good running workout the day after I rest from running. I did a hard workout yesterday, and though I feel good enough to head out for a mellow jog today, I’m opting for a yoga session instead.

On other days off from running, I’ll lift weights, swim, go indoor rock climbing, do a ton of yard work (keeping good form so I don’t hurt myself pulling weeds or moving pavers around). Sometimes, I’ll go on a very easy bike ride or mellow hike, but since both activities use leg muscles, I tend to veer away from them if I intend to rest my running legs.

Swimming and some of the weight training I do taxes my cardiovascular system, so I make sure I have at least one or two days a week where I’m not breathing super heavy to let that part of my body rest and recover as well. On those days, I’ll take my dog on a long walk, do yoga, climb, or rest completely and take the dog on a short walk—she and I both need the fresh air and movement.

Since I’m ramping up for this race in June, my running days consist of three or four quality runs per week—one long, slow run; one speedy effort run; one hill climb carrying a pack; maybe one mellow trail or neighborhood run. (Other times of the year, when I’m not training for something, I’ll just mix up my runs with whatever I’m in the mood for/what my body feels like.) Quality runs both require rest days and allow rest days—making the runs I’m doing count help my training more than a ton of quantity.  

Rest days/days off from running are just as important for beginning runners as they are for the more seasoned. In fact, rest days may even be more important for beginners as your body is adapting to the very movement of running. So even if you’re feeling good and excited about your running, be patient. Let your body recover in between running days with other light activities to keep your blood flowing and your muscles working lightly and in a different movement pattern from running. And envision your running muscles, joints, heart, and lungs getting stronger while you rest.

You’ll be better for it.