When designing their fitness routine — or even just talking about it — most people will discuss their strength training, cardio training, flexibility and diet. Few, however, will even mention their rest periods.
Most exercisers figure that if some exercise is good for you, then more is even better, but this practice can be counterproductive and even cause injury. Understanding what rest does for you body will help you appreciate the importance of rest days in your schedule.
What Happens During Rest?
Put simply, your muscles grow during rest, not exercise. During exercise the muscle fibers break down and your stores of glycogen, your body’s main fuel source, are depleted. This is true for both cardiovascular exercise and strength training. When you allow yourself periods of rest, however, the muscles adapt to the challenge by rebuilding and increasing in strength. Without sufficient rest, your muscles will continue to break down, leading to overtraining injuries.
The psychological effects of taking time to recover shouldn’t be overlooked either. Rest will give you something to look forward to during particularly difficult workouts, and leave you feeling refreshed and ready.
Symptoms of Overtraining
Overtraining can manifest itself in a variety of ways. When a particular set of muscles are not given time to recover and refuel, pain and any number of injuries can result. On a broader scope, overtraining can adversely affect your entire body — both physically and psychologically — by upsetting the delicate balance of the hormones DHEA and cortisol.
These two hormones have contradicting effects: DHEA builds muscle while cortisol tears it down. In a healthy, well-rested body they are used to guide muscle growth in response to the stresses of the environment. However, in an overtrained body, DHEA production is reduced and cortisol greatly increases. This is probably because cortisol, which is sometimes called the “stress hormone,” is released in response to periods of perceived starvation or danger, causing the body to cut back on expensive metabolic actions and horde fuel in the form of fat. This hormone imbalance can lead to exhaustion, mental confusion, moodiness, nutrient deficiencies, and increased blood pressure and cholesterol.
How Much Rest Do You Need?
Exactly how much rest you need in between exercise sessions depends on many factors, including your genetics, fitness level and overall lifestyle. At the very least, one day a week should be scheduled as a rest day.
A good way to decide how much rest you need, and when to schedule in your rest days, is by keeping a training log and paying attention to how you feel. A detailed log will allow you to see how your body responds to certain stresses and redesign your program accordingly. If, for example, you notice that your time for a distance you routinely run has increased, it’s likely because you were not properly rested, and you can adjust for future runs accordingly.
Rest and recovery doesn’t have to mean complete inactivity. Depending on your fitness goals, you may benefit more from “active rest” than from simply taking a day off. Active rest can generally take two forms: cross-training or a light workout.
Cross-training allows you to work in an activity that isn’t usually your main focus. For example, if your main sport is running, you may chose to strength train as a form of active recovery. If you usually ride a bike, go swimming instead. If you do try cross-training, though, it’s important not to overwork any muscles that are already sore from your normal workout.
Light workouts keep you involved in your sport, but at a reduced intensity. Although your total distance may remain the same as during a more difficult day, your heart rate should only be at about 70 to 75 percent of your maximum. As a general rule, on these “easy” days you should exercise at a pace that allows you to comfortably carry on a conversation. Runners World Magazine suggests that these light workouts should account for 80 to 85 percent of your total weekly mileage.
Although it can be difficult to take a day off or even take it easy on yourself, proper rest and recovery is a vitally important step towards reaching your fitness goals.
Have any tips for incorporating rest into your schedule? Please share them in the comments!