USA Triathlon News Blogs Multisport Lab The Rules of Rest

The Rules of Rest

By Jason Gootman and Will Kirousis | Nov. 18, 2014, 1:35 p.m. (ET)


Do you ever watch nature shows and notice how much time the wild animals sit around doing nothing? Do you ever wonder how your “lazy” house cat, Frisky, can jump 10 body lengths up onto the windowsill? Sure, his body is constructed for that kind of movement, but undoubtedly, what seems like “laying around all the time” is a big piece of why ole Frisky can do such stupefying physical feats. The best triathletes are like this too — they’re as good at resting as they are at working out, since rest plays a big role in the improvement process. It’s when you rest (and sleep) that your cells adapt to the demands of exercise and grow stronger.

Rest can be hard to define, but you know it when you experience it. You’re absorbed in a good book, watching a funny movie, laying in a hammock with your husband — and not trying to get anything done. You’re content just being there chilling out. Rest is vital to your wellness and wellness is the key foundation upon which all triathlon ability is built. Rest should be a big part of your life and your training process. To expand on this a bit more and to clear up any confusion you might have, we’ve created these rules of rest that we’ve learned to use ourselves and with the athletes we coach.

Rule 1: Take at least one rest day every week.

At least one day each week, don’t swim, ride, run or do any other workout. To maximize the benefits of rest days, rather than fill your time with more work and/or chores, get a bit more rest than you do on days when you workout.

Rule 2: The best day to take a rest day is on Sunday (or any day that you don’t work).

Sunday rest days rock. You don’t have work, you don’t have chores and you don’t have workouts. Ah, the rest! So much rest! When do you do your long workouts (aka race-specific workouts)? We suggest you do your race-specific bricks on Saturdays and your race-specific runs in the middle of the week. This approach gets you a deeply restful rest day and separates your race-specific workouts, which promotes both higher-quality workouts and better workout recovery.

Rule 3: Take a rest week every three or four weeks.

The idea of a rest week is to rest. You do enough working out to maintain your ability. That is, you are not trying to build your ability. It takes a lot less working out to maintain your ability than it does to build your ability. In these weeks, it’s best to avoid workouts that are challenging from a duration or intensity perspective for you. Do workouts that you are very comfortable doing. If it feels like you’re hardly doing anything, you’re doing it right. Rest weeks are also the perfect time for cross-training. Rest weeks are great for yoga, rock climbing, mountain biking, snowshoe running, etc.

Rule 4: Rest more in rest weeks.

Take more than one rest day in rest weeks. The athletes we coach often take three rest days in rest weeks. Consider doing rest days on consecutive days for a great recovery effect. 

Rule 5: Quality of rest matters as much as quantity.

Some people take the time they normally would be working out (in build weeks) and fill this time with extra work and/or chores. They can’t sit still. But the key to good rest weeks is, um, rest. Make it a game and see how much rest you can get and how deeply you can rest. Take a cue from the Italian phrase dolce far niente: the sweetness of doing nothing. Revel in the pleasant idleness. It’s wonderful for its own sake and you’ll be storing up huge amounts of energy to unleash in the build weeks that follow the rest week.

Rule 6: Swimming is not rest.

Remember, on rest days, don’t workout. That includes swimming. Yes, swimming is gentler on your body in many ways that cycling and running. But it sure ain’t rest. Rest is rest.

Rule 7: Cross-training is not rest.

Mixing things up is awesome! Cross-training workouts can be a great part of rest weeks and even build weeks if done right, but don’t confuse a two-hour mountain-bike ride with laying in a hammock. Doing something different is great for your body and mind, but it’s not rest. Rest is rest.

Rule 8: Rest uses a completely different way of thinking than everything else you do.

You’ve been conditioned to believe that life is entirely about getting stuff done, about making progress, about achieving. None of this is completely unhelpful, of course, but with it comes the bias that rest is a waste, even completely unnecessary. But reality dictates that what goes up must come down. There is day, there is night. Seasons change. Nothing ever stays the same. To consistently put out energy in a worthy cause, you must consistently take in energy. Yin and yang. Really outstanding triathletes are as good at resting (and savor it as much) as they are at working really hard in workouts. To become this way takes practice, like everything else. Make rest a practice. Practice resting deeply. Practice resting more. See if you are even more productive in your workouts (and other endeavors) as you get better at resting. We bet you will be. See if you can learn to enjoy resting. We bet you can.

Rule 9: Recovery techniques deepen the effects of rest; they don’t make up for a lack of rest.

Which of these triathletes will improve more and has a better chance of avoiding injuries? Triathlete A gets two hours of rest on most days, rests all day on Sundays, but never gets a massage or does any other recovery techniques. Triathlete B is always on the go, is always working, working out, doing chores or taking the kids somewhere. Triathlete B gets a massage every week and always wears compression socks. The winner is: Triathlete A! Recovery techniques are great, but they don’t make up for lack of rest — not even close. Make rest your priority and make recovery techniques a finishing touch.

Rule 10: Sleep is not rest.

You wake up at 5 a.m., drive to the pool, swim, head to the office, work all day, get home at 6:30 p.m., ride your indoor trainer, have dinner, kiss your spouse good night and go to sleep, and repeat. You say, “I get decent rest; I sleep seven hours a night.” Sleep is not rest. Sleep is sleep. Rest is being awake, but not putting out energy. It’s a human need just like air and water. Find a way to incorporate rest into your days by simplifying your life. On workdays, maybe you can find 30 minutes during the day or an hour after dinner when you can just unwind and just be. Do your best. You’ll feel better, recover better from workouts, improve more and race faster.

Learn more about Jason Gootman, Will Kirousis and Tri-Hard at

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.