Runbayou: Optimal rest

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Optimal Stress + Optimal Rest = Optimal Progress

Remember the most basic law of training? Optimal rest is the second factor in the equation and is equally important to optimal progress. You cannot separate optimal rest from optimal stress (the first factor) and get optimal progress.

Rest and recovery are key components to marathon training. When you run a lot of miles and/or run hard (stress your body), you'll need to recover appropriately. In other words, the harder you train, the more rest and recovery you need.

If optimal stress is controlled muscle damage, then optimal rest is controlled muscle recovery.


Optimal rest allows you to recover optimally. You don't get more fit during a workout. Think carefully about this. If you actually got more fit during a workout, then you could conceivably increase your training pace with each consecutive work-bout. Imagine, during the course of a single workout, you could go from average runner to world class marathoner. Unfortunately, getting more fit doesn't happen during the workout. You get more fit between get more fit as you rest and recover from the stresses of the workouts.

It is between the hard workouts that the various systems in your body respond to the stresses imposed. During each workout, your muscles are damaged, energy sources are depleted, and metabolic waste is produced. It takes time to repair the muscle damage, replete the energy sources, and clear the waste products. It takes even more time to improve and strengthen your muscle fibers, improve your ability to use energy efficiently, and improve your ability to clear waste products.

Optimal rest and recovery pace

Many runners mistakenly believe that by running too easy during non-hard workout days, they may actually be loosing fitness. So, they run a bit too hard on easy run days. This common training behavior prevents optimal recovery from hard training days. Unfortunately, it's a vicious cycle because sub-optimal rest leads to sub-optimal stress as your body is not able to absorb as much stress during the next hard workout. Of course, if you subject your body to the hard stress anyway, you increase your risk of injury.

So how do you determine optimal rest? What is your optimal easy pace? A general rule of thumb for easy running is to run at a pace that is ~90 seconds slower than your marathon pace. Another method is to use Coach Daniels' VDOT formula to calculate your training paces. Click the VDOT Calculator to calculate your easy running pace.

IMPORTANT: Read the caveats to VDOT formula training.

Easy days, easy running

Fundamental to this program is that on the days you should be running easy, you do in fact, run easy. Most runners stress the stress part (pun intended) and fail to rest and recover optimally.

Here is what an easy run will do for you

bulletIncrease your blood pressure while resting your muscles. This allows your blood to flush waste products (e.g., lactic acid) from your muscles
bulletAllow oxygen and nutrients to be used to build the capillary beds in your muscles...without having to provide energy for running
bulletAllow muscles to rebuild and get stronger
bulletAllow you to absorb the hard training you've done yesterday and will do tomorrow.

Here is what an easy run that is too fast will do to you

bulletIncrease the lactic acid in your blood. Some research has shown that lowered ph levels in the blood (i.e., blood that is more acidic than normal) may reduce the effectiveness of vitamins and nutrients. This means your muscles do not rebuild as fast as they could have, had the ph level been at normal levels.
bulletNot allow you to rest and optimally recover from hard workouts
bulletAllow you to "win" training runs....but is that what you want?


Matt Fizgerald talks of training absorption. He argues that it is not how much training you do but how much training you absorb. Optimal recovery means that you train as much as your body can absorb and that you absorb all the training you do. This makes sense if you believe that your body can only take so much training...either in a single work-bout, workout, or season. Any training you do above this is wasted and if you train more than your body can absorb, you may actually decrease your level of fitness...or risk injury.

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Last modified: 07/27/08