Is Running Every Day More Harmful Than Helpful?
If there’s one quality that all runners have in common, it’s dedication. And while everyone has a different idea of what “being dedicated” to your training means, it’s easy to take things a little too far by skimping on rest days—especially now when social media makes it easier than ever to compare your performance to others.
“If running is something you love and you start to notice that it’s a drag, try taking a day or two off and doing something different,”
It’s easy to think that running every day—even if it’s just for a few kilometres—is making us stronger and faster in the long term. But is this “no days off” mentality doing more harm than good? We turned to Angela Fifer, Ph.D., C.M.P.C., executive board member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, and Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., to find out.
There are multiple reasons people might adhere to a “no days off” philosophy, Fifer says. For one, some people find that it’s easier to keep up with running and other types of exercise if they make it a daily habit. Another is that athletes (of any ability) are usually competitive not just with others but with themselves, too, which can lead to adding just one more workout or just one more kilometre.
“Our competitive nature sometimes overrides our logic and reason when we want something really bad, like that next PR, race goal, or new distance,” Fifer says.
Hamilton adds that others run every day to calm their nerves, provide moments of clarity, or help with anxiety or depression in their daily lives.
Is It Okay to Run Every Day?
There are people who can handle training every day and others who find themselves having a really tough time getting back to the gym or back out for a run after a day off, according to Fifer.
But we need time to recover mentally, and even taking one day off can give our bodies and minds the chance to do so. If we don’t let our bodies recover, there’s the chance of getting burnt out, Fifer says.
We also need to allow ourselves time to recover physically. As it turns out, taking it easy from time too time helps our bodies get stronger, according to Hamilton.
“Physiologically, the body responds to stimulus by getting strong if it has the opportunity to respond,” she says. “In other words, periods of overload—or ‘hard’ days—followed by periods of recovery—‘easy’ days—will provide the best option for most [people].”
This is because our bodies go through a process called adaptation, Hamilton explains, where physiological changes on the cellular level—such as building more mitochondria and blood vessels, and making more blood and stronger muscle fibres—occur. Your body can’t do all of this if you don’t give it the appropriate amount of time (and fuel) to actually do so, she says. However, the “appropriate” amount of time varies depending on the person.
“Some athletes can get away with a very short, easy-paced run as their ‘recovery’ days. Others find that they do better with a true ‘rest’ day. And others may find that they respond best if they do an activity that is much lower stress than running—perhaps walking or maybe doing some easy swimming,” Hamilton says.
“So is a little running on a rest day okay for mere mortals? It can be. As long as you keep the volume and intensity very light, you can still get the recovery benefits,” Runner’s World previously reported.
The number one thing to keep in mind, according to Hamilton, is that whatever your preferred recovery activity is, it shouldn’t take away from the process of stimulating those physiological changes. In other words, you’re not doing yourself any favours by doing a hard pool workout. Just because you’re not running, a hard workout is still a hard workout no matter what.
“Most runners, though, will find that they perform better in races if they respect the process of training and the physiological demands that are placed on their bodies as they ramp up. Sleep is part of training. Rest is part of training. If you want to be the best, you must provide both stress (overload) and rest (recovery),” she says.
Signs You Might Benefit From Taking a Rest Day
There are both psychological and physiological signs that you might need a day (or more) off from running.
According to Fifer, the number one sign you might need a day off to benefit your mental health is if you don’t feel motivated to tackle your runs and workouts, or you’re not actually enjoying doing them.
“If running is something you love and you start to notice that it’s a drag, try taking a day or two off and doing something different,” Fifer says. “Taking a couple of days can help you to recharge.”
Physically, there’s a few key signs to look out for. Among them are: regular sleep disturbances, an elevated morning heart rate, the inability to fight off a cold, a sense of generalised fatigue, loss of appetite, feeling stiff or sore in general or feeling discomfort in a localised area, and feeling like it’s getting harder to maintain your normal training pace.
“I like to tell my athletes, ‘Listen to the whispers of your body, it will never have to shout at you.’ That simply means that if they tune into the more subtle signals that they’re pushing too hard—or the whispers—and respect those signals by altering the plan to allow for some recovery, then they might be able to avoid injury—or the shout.”
The Bottom Line
Taking a day (or more) off can give us a sometimes much-needed break from the pressure of paces, kilometres, and PRs we want to beat.
“The constant thought and pressure we might place on ourselves to accomplish our goals is really exhausting mentally,” Fifer says. “While our goals are really important, it is also important not to forget that there are other great things in life that matter as well.”
Fifer notes, too, that even elite athletes take days off.
“Maintaining perspective when training and racing is really important,” she says. “And sometimes it is a willingness to do so that will help us to take that next step forward towards our goals. We might feel so much better after a day or two off that we are even more aligned with our goals and ready to keep training hard to catch them.”
However, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and you should find a routine that works best for you.
“Each person will have unique goals and, thus, unique needs,” Hamilton says. “The person who manages their depression or anxiety by running every day has a very different goal and need than the person who is training with a specific race distance and race goal in mind. That first person may need that daily run no matter what, but that second person may find that they need rest days in order to perform at their best on the subsequent key workout or race.”