Through my years of training and coaching, one of the most debatable topics I’ve come across is the importance of rest and recovery. Not so much the need for it, but questions of why, when and how.
Most people who train consistently (in fitness or sport), especially over a long period of time, will tell you how difficult it is to back off from training. Some can find this hard to do for a day, and others will think a week break is ridiculously impossible or even unnecessary. Below I will share some reasoning for the importance of rest.
Why rest is essential
Without rest, the chance of achieving one’s full-potential or goals is slim. This applies to both fitness and sport. The most common result of not including proper recovery within a training program is overtraining. Overtraining is a sign of too much stress placed on the mind and body and not allowing time to recuperate. This can lead to injury and a lack of motivation.
Muscles break down during training. This breakdown usually develops by regular tears in the muscles. Because these tears are acute and normal, recovery usually takes a day or two. When these acute tears continue to occur, without proper rest, they can become a chronic condition. If this happens, injury is almost inevitable, as is a delay in progress in reaching your goals.
When you don’t allow enough time to recover, more so over time, after repeated bouts of physical activity, the nervous system becomes victim as well. If you burden the nervous system, your appetite can be suppressed, mood becomes irritable, you can become mentally weak, and your motivation to train deplenishes. Ignoring these symptoms only worsens the situation.
These are all signs physical and mental recovery is a must!
Regardless of your goal (e.g., improving strength or endurance; reducing fat; etc.), the body attempts to alert you that a rest day(s) is due. Some of those signs were highlighted above. Others include insomnia, boredom, prolonged fatigue or soreness, and even an elevated resting heart rate.
Recovery doesn’t have to be complete rest
One of the misconceptions about rest is that it has to be complete rest, sitting around doing nothing. Nothing is wrong with that approach if you’re talking about a day off during a full, six-day/week training program. I often endorse that for personal training clients and athletes alike. Of course, I still recommend some light flexibility exercises or foam rolling on that one day.
If we’re talking about a recovery week, then rest is usually a reduction in workload and/or cross-training. Reducing the workload could include doing the same or similar exercises, but purposely decreasing intensity (e.g., 50-60% of normal), quantity (e.g., lower number of reps and sets), and/or duration (e.g., turning a 10-mile run into 6-7). Cross-training is exactly what it sounds like – doing activities that are different from what you normally do during regular training; this can be both mentally and physically rewarding. Nutrition is the one thing that should remain constant. Quality nutrition is an important part of the recovery/rebuilding process.
How often and how long for recovery
This varies from activity-to-activity and person-to-person. I usually see folks who are working on muscle strength or size do well with taking a recovery every six weeks or so. High-impact exercises such as running may need recovery a bit more often due to its increased incidences of injury. These types of trainers, whether they do low mileage and high intensity or high mileage, a recovery week every four weeks is a healthy way to avoid injury and continue to improve performance over time.
These recommendations are not sketched in stone. Depending on the type of activity, intensity level, age, experience, prior injury, or the time of year if you’re an athlete (base, pre-competition, and competition) will play a role if a whole week is needed or when that recovery week comes into the picture. The key is to listen to body and mind, be smart, and understand that true improvement comes during times of rest. Experiment and find what works best for you. Remember, you have to put in the work in order to earn the rest.