In an earlier post I talked about rest days, and like most of what I write, I had to oversimplify things in order to keep each post from getting too long. But I wanted to elaborate on it now, because lately I've been taking some easy days myself and had been thinking about it quite a bit.
Last week my back started hurting, so I decided to take a few days off from running to give my beleaguered disk a break. But the thing is, the only thing that needed a rest was that disk, the rest of me was far from over-trained. So rather than just throw in the towel and feel sorry for myself about a minor set-back, I took a look at what I could do instead of running. I decided to start with push-ups, because your back is stationary when you do them and they are actually a really good upper body exercise. After a few days of that I switched to swimming, which is also very easy on the back but is a solid aerobic workout.
The moral of the story is that on rest days, you only have to rest what needs resting; anything else is fair game. These days can actually be a blessing in disguise, because it can allow you a chance to focus on something important that doesn't normally get a lot of attention. For me, push-ups were a great idea, because I have such a slim build that any extra muscle is a good idea. Changing your workouts can also be good for you mentally. Taking a step back from something that you are immersed in can help you see it better, and then you can come back to it with renewed enthusiasm and clarity.
The one exception to this is when you have been doing long, hard work-outs every day for many days in a row. This can lead to a kind of deep, full body exhaustion, where every system has been stressed. It is good to be this tired, it means you have been working hard, but after a while you need to do a complete stop for as many days as it takes you to feel refreshed. Joe Friel, the legendary triathlon coach, doesn't even let his athletes walk up too many flights of stairs on their rest days. Sleep is also really important in this phase. Sleep in, get to bed early, AND take a nap during the afternoon. Your body releases growth hormone each time you sleep, so the more of those you can get in, the more HGH your body will release to rebuild your aching muscles.