Chrissie Wellington on… The importance of rest days
(Image: Jonny Gawler)
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Chrissie W on… The importance of rest days

Britain’s four-time Kona queen shares her advice on how to listen to your body and cope with self-doubt

With our 'Train with Chrissie' competition winner Katy Campbell struggling not only to muster the energy to train, but also to handle the expectations placed on her, four-time Kona winner Chrissie Wellington shares her advice.

Competition winner Katy came to me at the end of last year with a complaint that I’ve not only heard many times in my career but have also uttered myself: “I’m terrible at figuring out when to rest and often leave it too late as I hate to feel like I’m skiving. Any top tips on deciding when to have a day off?!”

First of all, for any athlete, it’s great to think about this and learn to read your own body. For Katy, her volume of training has increased, so it’s not surprising she might be feeling tired. It’s so important to listen to the signals, ask for advice and respond appropriately. 

Many of us find it hard to take days/time off. This was anathema to me and tantamount to weakness – especially if people were always asking what I’d done. To respond with “I haven’t trained today” was like admitting I was weak or a failure. Coach Brett Sutton told me: “You don’t know how to rest your body and mind. Unless you can learn to do this you will never be a successful athlete.” He was right.

Rest/recovery is NOT weakness or failure. It’s fundamental to success. It’s not the swim/bike/run sessions that will make you fitter, it’s the recovery – the adaptation and regeneration from the stress caused by those activities. And it is not just about physical recovery; it’s mental recovery/relaxation too. 

Katy Campbell in swim training

Take it easy

Regarding rest days, there’s no hard and fast rule, but generally it’s sensible to have a rest day once every 7–10 days. Spending the afternoon trying in vain to assemble an Ikea wardrobe does not count as rest: buttocks on sofa is the position to assume. Push aside any (unnecessary and self-destructive) feelings of guilt or laziness and trust that resting makes you stronger and more resilient. Yes, sometimes you can also opt to substitute harder sessions with an easy training day (active recovery), but the emphasis is on the word ‘easy’. If it goes from being a 90min spin on the bike to a 2hr ride with a few hills then you’ve totally changed the nature of the ride and its purpose.

The key is to listen to your body and its signals, irrespective of your planned training schedule, and ask yourself some simple questions. Have my last few workouts been pretty sub-optimal? Has my sleep been broken? Am I moody and irritable? Do I feel overly lethargic and tired? Has my appetite disappeared? Do my legs feel like they’ve been run over by a truck?

Matt and I are trying to encourage Katy to try to work out what ‘tired’ feels like, what ‘illness’ feels like, and what ‘prolonged fatigue’ might be. Yes, it’s a fine line and that’s also why a log-book can help, so you can see if there’s a pattern developing and where you/your coach can respond accordingly. 

We also need to make sure that Katy’s getting enough (good quality) sleep. Sleep is vital to recovery. Cut down on the caffeine, switch off your phone and computer a few hours before bed, don’t eat too late, keep the bedroom for sleeping rather than gym sessions/watching tv and so forth. Whenever my sleep was disturbed, it was actually a sign that I might be over-trained. This isn’t the same for everyone, but it was something for me to watch out for. 

Katy Campbell reads a book

It’s really important to try your best to relax your mind as well as body. For Katy, it’s hard as she’s in the ‘spotlight’, so to speak, but try your best to turn off the triathlon switch so that you forget all things ‘A-race’ related. Watch TV, cook a meal, meditate, read a book, go to the movies – anything that gives your mind a break. 

As we’ve told Katy, if you’re a newbie, right now the focus is on exploring yourself, and your body, and getting used to doing three sports in one. It’s not about doing x hours per week at x speed (that comes later!). Be kind to yourself and banish guilt. It’s not healthy and it’s not productive. You may need more rest than some and less than others. It’s not about them, it’s about YOU, and what you need. Err on the side of caution. If in doubt, don’t train.

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