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Think you might be injured or sick? Try three days off

"When in doubt, take three days completely off," says coach David Roche

person on mountain top resting

Unsure if that extra-tight hamstring is actually a muscle strain? Feeling a little extra-tired and pondering whether you should run anyway? Three days off may be the answer.

David and Megan Roche, coaches and coauthors of The Happy Runner, have a three-days-off rule where they encourage the athletes they coach to freely take three-day rest blocks at any time. Here’s how (and why) you should try it yourself.

Runners want to push through everything

There’s good reason runners joke about this Monty Python skit when discussing injuries–we almost always want to find a way to muscle our way through. Sometimes (often) less is more. “…in an athletic life, holding on too tightly can have negative physical and mental health ramifications,” says Roche.

Our bodies know stress, not miles. Read that one again. You may have heard it before, but dig in there.

Instead of obsessing about lost mileage, listen to Roche’s wisdom: “Our Strava training logs quantify miles and intensity as stress proxies. Meanwhile, our brains and bodies are constantly integrating and quantifying stress directly through the nervous system. That stress load interpreted by the nervous system is what determines adaptation, not the proxy stress load on training plan bar charts.”

Recognizing what mental, emotional, and work and family stress you are adding to your training load is valuable. So is knowing that even if you scale back training time, your body is always striving to make adaptations to become better at handling stress, both physical and mental.

woman resting in mountains
Unsplash/joshua-gresham

Short-term cycles of inflammation (potentially good) can cause long-term negative feedback cycles (bad)

Roche explains in trailrunnermag that running, or any intense workout, will cause acute inflammation. “Acute inflammation may lead to growth, depending on the context,” he says. “Chronic inflammation may lead to almost every negative health outcome imaginable, from overtraining to life-threatening illnesses.”

While some inflammation may be a result of training, others may be caused by immune responses, nutrition, elevated cortisol responses “and basically everything else you can think of,” says Roche. “Preventing acute inflammation from becoming chronic inflammation sometimes requires stopping the cycle fully with time off.”

person resting on mountain:
Photo: Unsplash/Christopher Jolly

72 hours allows your body to perform repairs that will strengthen you

When you combine periods of dedicated training with healthy time off, your body is able to make the adaptations necessary to rebuild and recover.

“The biggest breakthroughs can happen a week or two after these quick breaks, and that’s not just due to recovery, says Roche. “That’s all about rest-induced growth.”

Time off lets you reassess and determine next steps

Roche suggests a branched tree of options after three days off (for any reason). If a runner is itching to go, easing back into running or cross-training can start, paying attention to issues if they crop up.

Alternatively, three days might be the perfect length of time for you to realize that you might need more time off and that it’s time to see a physical or mental health professional. Whatever choice you make, Roche reassures you that knowing when to take time off is an emotional strength that may well make you physically stronger, too.