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The Tour De France is often cited as the world’s most grueling endurance event. It’s a few weeks long. A couple of thousand miles. A daily photo opportunity involving women kissing men on the podium. Yes, as of 2019, “podium girls” were still a thing. That tradition needs to end, unless there’s a full-distance women’s Tour that has podium boys dressed in sailor’s outfits.
So, yes, the Tour de France can be grueling physically (and in other ways). Thankfully, the organizers schedule a couple of rest days during the race. Riders can put their feet up. Spectators can relax. Women on the podium don’t have to be objectified.
What do you think riders do on those rest days? They are racing six hours a day, on the edge of what’s humanly possible, even back in the Lance years when they had all the drugs available to humans and horses. I know I’d be doing Netflix intervals and nothing else.
But that’s not how it works. Almost all of the teams go out for a couple-hour easy ride. The conventional wisdom is that one day of doing nothing can lead to showing up with the next day with nothing in the legs. They ride, get a massage, eat like circus elephants. Then the next day, they again hammer themselves into a fine dust.
I think that Tour de France rest days have important lessons for runners.
Eventually, this article reviews how to use the lessons to set a routine to make rest days work for you. First, hundreds of tangentially related words.
Let’s start by thinking about why Tour rest days might be analogous to more typical training for runners. While training hopefully doesn’t reduce you to fine dust, there is a chronic stress load that is always piling up in the background, like a PC that is low on disc space and slowing down bit by bit. Consistently adapting through fatigue is what separates smart training from self-destruction. Riders in the Tour are at the razor’s edge of persevering through a few weeks of chronic stress and careening into a physical ditch. That’s why doping is such a big problem in Tour history—it puts some bumpers on the ditch in racing and training.
While training hopefully doesn’t reduce you to fine dust, there is a chronic stress load that is always piling up in the background, like a PC that is low on disc space and slowing down bit by bit. Consistently adapting through fatigue is what separates smart training from self-destruction.
On a lesser scale, all runners training to chase their potential are at a precarious balance. One side of the seesaw has adaptation and growth. The other side has injury and burnout and ditch sharks (yes, there are sharks in the ditch). But, a problem! Here is where things are different for long-term training. There is some feedback lag between the underlying physiological state and mental/physical feelings in many athletes. That offset is most evident in biomarkers.
Measure cortisol and hemoglobin and other stress-affected variables often, and usually they’ll start going to the wrong end of the seesaw before an athlete knows it. The mental and physical manifestations of overstress can lag behind the cellular-level drivers. It’s like climate change—greenhouse gases emitted now will be driving calamities many decades in the future. When the worst disasters begin, it’ll be too late. The same goes for overtraining from chronic stress.
Rest days serve two main purposes that connect back to the Tour riders.
One, rest days are insurance against disaster—this is the recovery element. Yeah, you might not need to rest every week. But if you wait to rest until you think you need it, you may already be circled by some hungry ditch sharks. Rest days let you reduce cortisol, keep sex hormone balance and prevent insidious overuse injuries. That recovery element is why the Tour riders keep the riding very relaxed, rather than doing some bonus training.
Two, rest days can help spur adaptation. Glycogen replenishment and more complex stress/healing cycles are at play here. While this element plays less of a role in three-week long races, it’s what got the racers to that level in the first place.
However, now is when things get interesting. If rest days are about recovering and adaptation, both of which do not require an aerobic stimulus, why do they ride at all?
It could just be tradition. But given how narrow the margins are at that level of elite sport, it’s safe to assume they ride on their rest days because not riding might spell disaster for unexpected reasons.
Given how narrow the margins are at that level of elite sport, it’s safe to assume Tour athletes ride on their rest days because not riding might spell disaster for unexpected reasons.
Most popular articles on the subject talk about flushing lactic acid from the legs, but the body doesn’t really work that way. Perhaps it’s facilitating blood flow, which can enhance some of the recovery and adaptation processes. Maybe the slight blood volume stress prevents any losses on the day off. Other reasons may include: changes in muscle tension with lack of activity, neuromuscular variables that have high sensitivity or even really cool stuff like epigenetic expression. Or that might all be a big load of crap and it’s actually that if they stop riding, they’ll suddenly realize that mom was right all along and that the engineering school in Paris is still enrolling new students. Whatever the exact reason, full rest off the bike is not common in the Tour de France.
But now, things diverge sharply for runners.
Running involves impact forces, and using running form causes a higher heart rate for most athletes than a very easy bike spin. On a Tour rest day in 2017, Reto Hollenstein did 86 minutes at an average heart rate of 100 beats per minute. Most of the other riders are spinning around 15 miles per hour, which is almost no relative output for these monsters. And even if they added some effort, cyclists don’t have to worry about the bonus stress that comes from impact.
Maybe a runner could go slow enough to be around 100 beats per minute. I know I couldn’t, because my heart rate spikes to 140 when I get a notification from the Doordash app. But maybe there are runners who could. The problem is that even very easy jogs come with musculoskeletal stress that can contribute to overuse injuries. And short of that, it may just add to background risk without enough benefit to justify it.
The problem is that even very easy jogs come with musculoskeletal stress that can contribute to overuse injuries. And short of that, it may just add to background risk without enough benefit to justify it.
So why do some runners hate rest days? All the time in coaching, I’ll hear from a runner that says they just don’t rest because it makes them feel worse the next day. My guess is that feeling is largely neuromuscular, but whatever the cause, rest days make them feel horrible. In the worst cases, they may do daily running streaks. That sentence might not have seemed like a big deal to you, but to me, that was a horror movie jump-scare.
That’s why I ask athletes to take a page out of the cyclists’ handbook. Rest days don’t mean “DO NOTHING AT ALL.” Rest days mean move enough to avoid whatever downfalls come from total lack of activity without risking adaptation and recovery.
I generally like all athletes to fully rest from running once every seven to 10 days, including pros who could run each day without a problem. If you’re resting from running more than once a week, the other days can involve more focused aerobic cross training with a higher heart rate.
Here are my five rest-day guidelines.
One: Stay on a routine, with a warm-up and a light walk in place of a training run.
You can sub in a very light bike or swim if you are efficient enough at those sports so it doesn’t cause any fatigue.
I like a 20-to-90-minute walk, moving efficiently but not moderate or hard.
The Tour riders are doing the equivalent of walking on the rest days. But runners can’t really do the same effort running unless they are total beasts and extremely durable. I like a 20-to-90-minute walk, moving efficiently but not moderate or hard. And even though you aren’t running, you can still do some trail dancing. Basically, do some focused movement, just without impact or stress.
Two: Mobility and massage
Fascia and muscle fibers are subject to short-term changes that can cause that next-day staleness and tightness in some athletes. I love foam rolling, light stretching and leg swings. But find what works for you.
Three: Eat like a circus elephant
Glycogen replenishment plays a role in hormonal state, stress reduction, healing and adaptation to training. An athlete might not always be able to avoid within-day deficits during heavy training.
Rest days are the backstop against depletion. Eat a couple big, fun meals, and wake up the next day knowing your body has the surplus needed to reach your long-term potential.
Four: Keep the blood flowing
Try to avoid just sitting at a desk for 10 hours and calling it a day. This element can be very simple. I like athletes to walk around every couple hours, do some push-ups, maybe put their feet up against the wall, perhaps use the sauna with a bunch of sweaty guys that grunt for no apparent reason.
Think of it like living a dog’s life, chilling hard most of the time, napping if you have time, but periodically moving to a new snoozle location and going on some smell walks.
Five: Practice love
Rest days can be dark days. Here’s what you need to remember: the brain may be deprived of some of what it thinks it needs (running, endorphins), but the body is getting exactly what it actually needs. Our brains can adapt to new situations quickly and in a non-linear way.
Meanwhile, the body plays it slow, with the imperceptible movement of the hour hand governing underlying physiological processes. So try to give the brain some of what it wants without giving it what it may think it needs, risking health and growth in the process.
I like athletes to focus on love. Love others, to start. Consciously be the kindest version of yourself you can be.
But most importantly, love yourself. Your brain may want to turn on you. I am fat like a circus elephant! I am getting slower! I am a human raft full of trash and lard! The resting brain can be creatively self-loathing.
And when the brain does that, don’t fight it. Hug those thoughts, and redirect them. No, brain, I’m giving my body what it needs. I am like a beautiful snow leopard! I am adapting! I am a sleek speedboat anchored in the harbor!
Rest days are about taking actions that manifest the patience and kindness of love into your physical growth. Now, I’d really appreciate it if two Podium Bots kissed this article on the cheek.
I guess rest days aren’t about rest, not really. Rest days are about taking actions that manifest the patience and kindness of love into your physical growth. Now, I’d really appreciate it if two Podium Bots kissed this article on the cheek.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.