Remember running your first mile? Chances are, it didn’t go quite as expected. But over time, you found your footing—one step, then another—and running suddenly became Your Thing. One sore-free sniff of that elusive runner’s high and you were off, suddenly someone who laces up their (first pair of real) jogging sneakers seven days a week. Who even is she?
If you can relate to this sentiment, you’ve likely experienced the speed (pun intended) that your running goals can go from zero to 60. Before you know it, pushing for more—longer distances, better stamina, faster pace—is all you can eat, drink, and sleep. You start shifting plans and lifestyle habits around your runs, and decide that taking rest days makes you feel restless. I’m fine, everything’s fine! No, that’s not blood all over my socks! I could never overdo it or injure myself!
Many of us have been on this form of proverbial hamster wheel at some point, whether related to running, cycling, weight lifting, dance cardio—whatever gets your endorphins and heart rate going. It’s a thin line to toe! Which is why the latest episode of The Well+Good Podcast shines a light on the importance of *always* taking a beat to unlace (and ice, foam roll, take a nap every so often…) for fear of burnout.
According to podcast guest Victoria Sekely, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist and running coach, this “rest days are for the weak” mindset is often a lingering byproduct of “hustle culture,” and it can quickly lead a runner down a dangerous path if not tackled on the sooner side.
TL; DR: If there’s one thing that Dr. Sekely wants every runner to know, it’s that the days you spend not running are just as important as the ones you do. So, what can you do to become an even better runner in terms of performance and mental health, especially when you can’t run (hi, injuries or other limitations)? Dr. Sekely tells all on the latest episode of The Well+Good Podcast.
Why rest days are critical to becoming an even better runner
By now many of us know that running is a very nuanced topic, and what works for one runner might not work for another. That’s why Dr. Sekely says it’s critical to listen to your body to determine what’s best for you, and not always rely on what folks— especially on social media, especially if unqualified to do so—may be telling you to do. “The running community is a bit laced into this hustle culture-like [loop] in which there isn’t much information [available] on when to take rest days or how to take rest days. It’s a lot of: Here’s how to become faster; Here’s how to run more. And a lot of it’s based on just doing more, more, and more,” Dr. Sekely says.
To that end, Dr. Sekely underscores that one of the most important things you can do as a runner is focus on rest days and give them your all, just as much as you would on a run day. “Many people forget that it’s not just about building, it’s also about leaving time for proper recovery. And that’s a huge component, especially when we’re talking about injury prevention, which is my expertise,” she says. Loud and clear: Your body needs rest days in order to perform at its best.
Dr. Sekely acknowledges that it can be easy to fall into the mindset of “you’re not doing enough; you should be giving a hundred percent on every single run”—but this toxic, agonizing pressure can lead to more serious injuries if you aren’t taking care of yourself properly, she says. Which can ultimately stop you from doing what you love most: run.
The solution? Dr. Sekely recommends taking it easy every now and then, focusing on rest days when you need them most, and/or simply cutting back on the intensity and modifying your stride routinely (especially after injuries—work on building back up from there.)
Shifting your perspective about running may benefit your mental health
Taking a step back from running isn’t always easy, especially if it’s part of your regular mindfulness routine—however, it’s smart to keep things in perspective when it comes to cost vs. benefit. “It’s important to recognize that running can be a tool for mental health. However, running is not a substitute for actual therapy, and that’s important when I start talking to runners who might feel pain,” Dr. Sekely says.
Although engaging in physical activity can be very beneficial for mental health, the running expert says it’s important to know where (and when) to draw the line—especially if it comes at the detriment of your physical well-being. That’s to say, Dr. Sekely stresses that her patients view running as simply one of the many tools in the toolkit for supporting mental health, rather than letting it become an all-in-one remedy.
Dr. Sekely notes that the mental health component is particularly relevant with folks that view taking a day off as completely out of the question. “At the end of the day, no matter what sport you play, no matter what activity you do, your body needs rest in order to improve. It’s just a scientific fact,” she says.
What to do when you can’t run
So, how should you fill the void when you can’t run? Promise you have tons of options, fam. “There’s gonna be times when you’re running more and there should be times when you’re running less and there should be times that you’re taking breaks from running. So having other hobbies outside of running is incredibly important, whether that’s reading books or maybe it is another activity like cycling or something that’s alongside running,” Dr. Sekely says.
For more ways to become a more well-balanced athlete on every level (whether you’re out running or not), listen to the full episode of The Well+Good Podcast. Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.