A rest day is exactly that, a day of rest; no triathlon related training that day. So no swimming, no training rides, and no running, a day when you let your body recover and heal from the previous days or weeks of hard training. Training stresses the body, tears it down, so a rest day is meant to give this process time to work, to rebuild and grow stronger.
Some athletes prefer rest days built into their schedules every week, say Sunday or Monday, while others prefer to take them as needed, possibly in place of an easy/recovery workout. Realize if you always take one day a week off from training, it’s one less day to squeeze in your workouts, so you’ll likely wind up with one or more days of two-a-day workouts.
Rest days also help with our mental outlook. Constant stress without breaks, without the dynamics of change, leads to a plateau in our training, injuries when we don’t give our bodies time to heal, burnout and boredom from the same ole same ole routine. So there’s also the mental part of this, taking a break from the repetition of our training, allowing our brains to relax, get away from the constant planning of training around our busy lives.
Also realize that a rest day is not a day to head to the gym to catch up on your weight training, or go hike up La Cumbre Peak, or do an easy ocean swim after swimming months with the Masters group in the pool. Think more along the lines of not being a triathlete, hang out with your non-tri geek friends (try not to talk about your training!), reconnect with your significant other, and just chill for a day. Okay?
A recovery day is basically a day where you do schedule a workout, but at very low intensity (recovery HR zone 1/2) and much shorter distance. Think runs of 30-45 minutes, easy pace, or bike rides of 45-60 minutes, not “feeling the pedals” under your feet effort. Yes, this means no track workouts, no hills, no intervals, no fast group runs, all that. If you’re riding along the bikepath and you get passed by someone, a person that you think you should be riding faster than, let them go!
And if you’re a Masters swimmer, go to the back of your lane, don’t go anywhere near anaerobic, sit out a 100m here and there to ensure that doesn’t happen, or even swim down a lane. I know, heresy, not swimming in your lane, so maybe just go a different night and try some easy IM sets.
Recovery days are typically after 1-2 days of hard workouts, where you remain active, but at a pace that doesn’t add more stress to the body. Instead, by moving slowly and easily it helps to promote blood flow, freeing up your stiff muscles and joints, flushing out the byproducts of hard training from the muscles and blood system, setting you up for the next set of hard workouts.
Both rest and recovery days are an excellent opportunity to do some bodywork, get a massage, do an easy yoga class (not a power yoga class on a rest day!), which all help the body heal and recover from our hard training.
Now for those training for longer races, with long term schedules, we can add the term recovery week. When you’re following a long term, periodized training plan, you have to add in breaks to allow your body to adapt to the periodized increase in the training load, to get ready for the next phase of increased training. Taking every third or fourth week as a recovery week, a mixture of rest and recovery days, depending on your racing goals, training base, and age, allows the body to heal, the mind to take a break from the constant stress of hard training, week after week, and hopefully allows you to push forward to harder efforts.
I hope this clarifies the use of these terms, rest and recovery days, so enjoy them while you can, then get ready for more hard workouts to follow!
USAT Level I Coach