The importance of rest and recovery

Last modified date

What does sleep have to do with running?

So. If I told you this post is about sleep, you’d probably ask me why I’m tackling this topic in the Learning to Run feature…

Turns out sleep is essential, not only for your physical well-being, but your mental and emotional health too. According to research conducted by the National Sleep Foundation in the USA, adults need on average seven to nine of sleep a night.

“And once you add athletic training into the mix, you need more sleep,” says Dr Dale Rae, director of Sleep Science and senior researcher at UCT’s division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA)

“Exercise training imposes a stress on your body from which you need to recover, allowing adaptation and hopefully improved performance.

“Sleep is a critical part of recovery and most professional athletes sleep in excess of eight hours each night,” she adds.

Dr Rae also suggests that if you’d like to improve your athletic and work performance, general health and mood, you get an extra hour of sleep each night.

But the reality is that while some of us sleep like babies once our head hits the pillow, others battle to get enough – or quality – sleep.


Get a good night’s rest

Among the things that can affect your ability to get a good night’s rest are a lack of bed time routine, consuming caffeine or heavy meals too late in the day, not spending time winding down before bed time and exposure to light from TVs, phones, tablets and computers. This light suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone which helps to promote sleep and regulates sleep-wake cycles.

And while you might think that nightcap is aiding your journey to dreamland, the bad news is that while it may make you sleepy, or help you fall asleep fast, the consumption of alcohol can interfere with the quality of your sleep as your body works overtime to metabolise it.

Equally important to getting a good night’s rest, is including opportunities for rest and recovery from physical activity in your training schedule, particularly when you’re preparing for a big race. In my case, of course, it’s the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon (OMTOM) 21.1km.

My training with SSISA’s OptiFit programme includes three days of running, including a long run on the weekend, as well as strength training and rest days.

Include recovery days in your training schedule

According to SSISA, rest in a training programme, which facilitates recovery and helps prevent injury, is relative to the experience of the runner. But “as this runner gets more experienced, the number of rest (zero distance) days will decrease”.

They also suggest that before a race such as OMTOM, runners reduce their training load in the last two to three weeks before the race, which is referred to as the “tapering period”.

During this time you should reduce the distances you’re running, but can include faster workouts.

On the importance of rest and recovery, senior consultant and running coach at SSISA’s Sports Performance Centre, Rebecca Johansson, adds: “When training for Two Oceans Marathon or Half Marathon, the goal is to improve performance while keeping the risk of injury low. The key to keeping injury risk low is rest and recovery.  Many runners think rest days and recovery weeks lead to a decrease in fitness. However, runners only adapt to training when they take a planned rest day or recovery week.”

If you’re like me and feel antsy on the days you’re not active, you can relax – a rest or recovery day does not have to be a sedentary day. “Recovery days can include light activity such as walking, swimming, cycling, or yoga.  If you are very fatigued, then simply spend 20 minutes doing some light stretching and/or foam rolling,” Ms Johansson advises.

As for where in your training programme you slot in your recovery days, she says: “When to factor in recovery days is individual to each runner’s needs and dependent on experience level and what other commitments he or she has in their life.  In general, runners with three or less years of experience will run three to four times a week. This ensures one rest or active recovery day between running days.”

You can do Pilates on a recovery day

Five tips for rest and recovery ahead of a big race

  1. You know your body best.  Listen to it, and give it a rest day if needed.
  2. Be adaptable.  Not even the winners of Two Oceans will tick off 100% of their planned run sessions.
  3. Confide in an experienced running coach. They can give you tips on how to plan recovery into your training programme.
  4. Have fun. At the end of the day, that is why we all run – to enjoy it.
  5. In the week leading up to your race – try to accumulate some extra sleep. Good news is that poor or little sleep the night before the event is unlikely to affect your race performance.

Chantel Erfort

I'm a yoga teacher and health advocate who runs and enjoys the outdoors. Having previously lived a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle, nothing makes me happier than being able to share the benefits of including some movement, mindfulness and healthy eating into one's life.