Rethink your rest day: improve performance by running 7 days a week / by Edmund Milly

In a previous post, I mentioned that my current personal philosophy for running and life is: “if you suffer a little every day, you’ll never suffer a lot.” In this post, I’d like to make my case for running 7 days a week, rather than the commonly prescribed 6. Most recently, I’ve seen the 6-day prescription endorsed by Dane Rauschenberg in an entry on his Runner’s World blog. He says of rest days:

I did some coaching for a while, and the most annoying thing was telling athletes to take a rest day and then noticing they ran an “easy three.” That isn't rest. The year I ran 52 marathons in a row was also the year I ran the fewest miles I’ve run in a year since I have been keeping track. I averaged a 3:21 marathon by knowing I needed to give my body time to recover, or at least as much time as was possible. Without rest, our bodies simply can’t repair, rebuild, and strengthen. If you feel guilty or weak for taking a recovery day, do some pushups. After about 100, you will be cool with your rest day.

Side note. Dane’s track record of dramatically improving his own running performance makes him someone worth listening to - in 2001 he ran his first marathon in 4:12, and in 2006 he ran 52 marathons with an average time of 3:21. There aren’t really a whole lot of running role models like that: somebody who started out pretty average and gradually dropped their PR by more than an hour. It often seems like most well-known marathoners are either bucket-listers (the type who finish one marathon in the middle of the pack to prove that they could, of which Oprah is the best-known exemplar) or the elites (whose ways are not our ways, nor their thoughts our thoughts; they sprang into the world as elites, they competed in high school and college, and they can do incredible things, but they cannot drop an hour from their marathon PRs). So when someone like Dane Rauschenberg, or Larisa Dannis, or Scott Jurek (borderline - he ran in high school, but at least he was the worst on his team) has advice, I’ll hear them out.

But I’ve had a paradigm shift regarding rest days. The way I think now, a rest day doesn’t have to be a day that you do nothing, it just has to be active recovery - an activity light enough that it gives your running muscles a chance to recover, whether that’s cross-training that uses different muscles (bike, swim, strength, yoga) or a lighter run (less distance, slower pace). In the 143 days since May 3 (the day I ran the Long Island Marathon) I’ve only had 16 days without a run, and May 4 was not one of them. This means that on average I’ve taken 1 day off from running out of every 9, but in fact, most of those were accidents: 4 of them were due to 12-hour travel days, a few were due to graduation and moving to NYC, and a few were due to a brief cold (or maybe allergies?) I caught from everyone else in Schola Cantorum at the beginning of June. So in my experience, days without running happen often enough without trying: no need to dogmatically take a day off once a week, because you’ll probably regret it when you don’t manage to fit in a run a few days later.

Why should you care? Because in those same 143 days, I’ve PR’d in each of the “canonical” road race distances: the marathon (May 3), 5K (May 17, after two weeks of very easy recovery runs), 10K (July 4, after weeks of steady easy mileage, the occasional speedwork, swimming and cycling), and the half (September 19, at the end of an 80-mile week with no “taper,” in the thick of marathon training). I’ve found that as long as you moderate the intensity of your runs, a high training volume is not a problem. Why has this approach worked so well for me, and what made me change my mind?

  1. It’s easier to sustain high weekly mileage when it’s divided over 7 days instead of 6, even at the expense of that rest day. If you’re running 84 MPW, that means 14 miles a day if you take a weekly rest day, but only 12 miles a day without one. In my experience, 12 x 7 puts less stress on the body because the distance is more manageable.

  2. The psychological benefit of maintaining a running “streak” is invaluable. An intentional day off every week has always wreaked havoc on my attempts to maintain the habit of running every day - one day off always seemed to turn into 2 or 3. Even now when I miss a day, it’s harder to go running the next day than it would have been without the day off.

  3. Maffetone’s Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing really opened my eyes to the restorative power of easy aerobic work. Maffetone says that taking the day off after a big race is a big mistake; the earlier you can start your active recovery process from a hard anaerobic effort the better. Lactic acid has accumulated in your muscles, and stress hormones have been released throughout your body. Going for an easy recovery jog flushes these things out and makes your muscles less sore the next day.

  4. In Daniels’ Running Formula, Jack Daniels says that you shouldn’t consider your recovery process from a race complete until you’ve logged one day of easy running for each 3 to 4 km of race distance: accordingly, you need two days to recover from racing a 5K, and up to two weeks to bounce back from a marathon. Note his wording! It’s not that you need one “rest day” for each 3 to 4 km, but rather one day of easy running. If you took a day off after racing a Saturday 10K, the earliest you could possibly put in a speed workout would be the next Thursday, whereas skipping the day off could get you back to speed by Wednesday… which would give you more time to recover for whatever the next weekend’s plans might entail (a tempo or a long run perhaps). Daniels’ message is the same as Maffetone’s: the earlier you start logging recovery runs, the better.

  5. Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running also extolls the virtues of logging lots of easy miles, because they deliver the greatest gains in running economy. Fitness gains from intervals (VO2 max) and tempo runs (lactate threshold) will fade away when you take away those elements from your training, but gains in running economy are forever. Every mile you run, your body and mind teach you to run more “skillfully” - as Fitzgerald puts it, with more “relaxed smooth ease.” Therefore, the more miles you run, the better a runner you will become. And how do you log more miles without putting yourself in danger of injury? By making sure your workouts don’t comprise more than 20% of your weekly mileage. It’s the same principle that Terry Laughlin always comes back to in Total Immersion (albeit regarding swimming), that learning economy of movement will always trump fitness, in a way that is permanent, safe, and sustainable.

  6. Endurance training - particularly for the marathon - is about racking up the cumulative fatigue necessary to develop certain physiological adaptations. If you want those adaptations, you will have to do without the feeling of “fresh” legs. Luke Humphrey, author of Hansons Marathon Method, gave me another epiphany when I saw his training log leading up to a marathon PR of 2:14:37. Guess what? 15 weeks of 100 to 130 miles per week, and one day without a run (in week 3! Not in his modest taper.) If you want to run like Oprah (hey, 4:29:20 is good enough for a lot of people, and more power to them), then train like Oprah. But if you want to run like an elite, why not start emulating their practices?

So, to summarize: run the highest training volume (miles per week) that you can sustain, spaced out evenly over 7 days. Never run more than 20% of your training volume at an intensity that exceeds your air thresh. Develop the skill of feeling out the state of your body, because if you listen, your body will be such a conservative moderator of intensity that you have little to fear in the way of overtraining, even if you run every day. Focus on developing economy, not on boosting your VO2 max.

Developing the practice of running every day has taken me years of baby steps, so I know that it’s easier said than done. Neither am I recommending that someone who currently runs 3 days a week should start running 7 days a week. Running across Canada with less than one rest day per week made me realize that the prescription of taking a seventh day off was arbitrary, and probably had more to do with religious and cultural practices than with physiological need. Ironically, I also made a lot of progress during the year and a half I took off from running, because I developed the habit of working out in some way every day, whether it was calisthenics training or bike commuting (but usually both).

I used to worry that performing the same calisthenics moves every day (e.g. pushups, pullups) would cause overtraining - aren’t you supposed to only work out the same muscle groups every other day? But I noticed that the bar athletes I was learning from on youtube had no such assumptions, and that they had stronger, more functional bodies than traditional bodybuilders. It’s another case of volume vs. intensity. As my aunt and uncle, Kathy and Mike (who are globally-ranked crossfit badasses) put it when I asked about the safety of doing pullups every day: if you want to improve performance, then the best way to do it is by practicing that move every day (duh!)

Anecdote time. Circa 2009, my sister and I were heavy into martial arts. We trained in taekwondo, but we loved it all, and I had a real weakness for martial arts films, so one rainy day during exam period, we went to check out the over-the-top “Ninja Assassin” at the Scotiabank Cinema in downtown Montreal. It was sort of the apotheosis of the ninja movie, a cultural product that by all rights should have been produced in the 1980s. There was a line that stuck with both of us, when the cruel yet efficacious master of the ninja school says to Raizo over their evening bowl of gruel, “Eat today, and you work twice as hard tomorrow.” Gemma said, “I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t you eat today, so that you can work twice as hard tomorrow?” At the time, I agreed, but now, through the lens of my experiences in endurance training, maybe now I understand the underlying idea: when your training volume is so high that you absolutely cannot work twice as hard tomorrow, then your only option is to deprive yourself of a little comfort today so that you don’t have to attempt it. Suffer a little every day, and you’ll never suffer a lot.

I guess even ninjas have to carb-load every once in a while.