Running less to run better

An accidental performance boost through laziness

Is taking a day off from running really better?

My goal has always been to run every day no matter the weather or what I have going on in my personal life.

This has never been easy. I am a busy parent and supportive husband to a professional partner (I mean, she has a professional career, she’s not professionally my partner even though she says being married to me requires professional-level patience). And to ramp up the difficulty level, I live in a wet, northern, toe-numbing climate. Running every day takes real dedication, which is probably why I have always tried so hard to keep my streak of running days going.

Of course, I have always performed the requisite taper day ritual before big races and followed recovery day advice for afterwards, but for the rest of the time I try never to come up with a reason to skip a run. Then one day I noticed a counterintuitive trend. I was consistently having my best runs on the day after I took a day off.

I was consistently having my best runs on the day after I skipped a day.

I was brought up in a running culture that believed in a set pattern of hard training days and slack days. You planned them out so that slack days gave you enough recovery to safely push on the next hard day but you never took a day off to sit on your butt. Taking days off was for joggers, not serious runners.

So I started to pay more attention to how I felt on the running days that followed a day off. I had all the metrics, of course, going back years thanks to training spreadsheets and automatic GPS watch downloads but the metrics don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, I run trails the majority of the time. Trail conditions and routes vary so much that it’s very hard to have a real down-to-the-minute comparison of one run to another even on the same trail. Weather also plays a large part. Running on an snow-covered, icy trail is vastly different from a slush and mud one even if both runs happened in the same week.

Instead, I had to factor in how I felt about my run. Did I power up the hills without much effort or was I slowing to a fast walk? Did I throw myself into flat straightaways to get my overall time down or did I continue at the same pace as when I was tree dodging?

It only took a few post-skip-day runs before noticing that I was always “fast” on those days (even if I wasn’t at my fastest) and I always felt really good about my runs. So I tried adding in another day off, spaced days away from the other day off so that the days off were almost always 4 days apart, some days being as close as 3.

Interestingly, the consistent feeling of better performance and the better than usual metrics stayed for the most part, but I would have the odd day of feeling just average. That lack of science led me to some time spent searching on the internet.

There don’t seem to be many studies on exactly this scenario. If there are any that match what I was doing, I couldn’t locate them through Google and I didn’t go so far as to engage a librarian on the task (always a good way to track down hard to find studies). However, I did find two:

They are geared toward muscle recovery and related strength mechanics but they do address rest and recovery days. Surprise! (not really) Without planned recovery days, your muscles reach a point where they are more prone to injury. Strategically situated rest days seem to show a decrease in injury rates and maybe an increase in performance.

“Maybe” doesn’t sound very definitive but all the studies I looked at had a page full of caveats. Everyone is different, even professional athletes. It’s hard to define when safe training ends and when over-training begins. Pro athletes listen to their coaches. You and I need to listen to our bodies and find the balance between the pleasures of running and the benefits of sometimes being lazy.

Happy trails!

BTW, if you enjoyed the webcomic at the top of this article there are more at https://www.secretsofrunning.com.