Thursday, June 13, 2013

How and why to take a rest day

There is an expression among triathletes: “Either you rest now (when you choose to) or you rest later (when your body makes you because you are injured).”

This may be obvious to reluctant exercisers, who work out gently, when they find time, follow a similar routine each time, and avoid pain and injury by not pushing themselves to exertion. You are why Zumba exists.

Driven types, on the other hand (and you know who you are) work out religiously and super intensively with the fear that easing up or taking time off will harm performance.

Many know the reality that getting enough rest after a hard workout is crucial to consistent high-level performance, yet may still feel guilty about taking a day off.

If you fall into either of these two categories, read on for information on why and how rest days following intensive workouts make you stronger in the end.

What happens during a rest and recovery period?

So you’ve added extra workouts to prepare for your first triathlon, 10k race, hill sprint workout, resistance-cardio combo, alumni basketball game, or   Fill in your workout  , and have pushed your muscles to exertion during this latest workout.

Over the next day, your body will start to compensate for the stress placed on your joints and muscles by repairing damaged tissue and replenishing fluids and muscle glycogen (energy!) lost during the workout.

If repair and replenishment are cut short, you increase your risk of straining or injuring yourself next time. On the other hand, taking a day off from training to allow repairs to take place enables you to train harder during your next workout. Yes, really.

How does exercise make your muscles stronger?

Increasing your strength and physical capacity is a two-part process: improved performance requires (1) intensity in the workout and (2) rest afterwards.

Muscles that generate motion (called skeletal muscles), are made up primarily of proteins. The exercise itself, particularly if it involves some resistance, causes tiny tears in our muscles, which recover and actually grow stronger with rest.

Exercise helps to strengthen muscles in two main ways: (1) the physical stress recruits more muscle cells and gets them to work together, and (2) over time, it also enlarges the ones already there, primarily in men (thanks to their higher testosterone levels). Repeated training with recovery causes all those protein chains in your muscles to grow thicker, stronger, and more numerous. The tendons, ligaments and other connective tissues surrounding the muscle also thicken and become stronger.

"muscles grow during rest."   image: JustFitness

These processes resulting from the stress + recovery combination increase the strength of the muscle to do stuff like jump, lift weights or run fast.

Exertion stress and adaptation

Our bodies are amazing - given time and repetition, they can adapt to the stress of a variety of intensive physical workouts.

weekend warrior
image: LateNightHealth
You know that dull ache of sore muscles that you (and I!) feel 1-2 days after playing basketball or lifting weights for the first time in months or adding sprints or circuits to your training regimen?

It’s actually a normal result of stressing your muscles and decreases gradually as you repeat the same routine.

Seriously! That same workout or running distance that beat you up the first time and is now routine? That’s your muscles learning how and how much to respond to stress.

I’m guessing our early ancestors felt the same after a particularly long hunt. They certainly needed to recover quickly, and you can too.

The muscle learning and adaptation happens only if you tax your muscles regularly (then rest): infrequent, casual workouts alone won’t improve our physical performance.

So, staying fit is a fine balance.

To improve athletic performance, we need to stress our bodies, but too much stress without enough rest increases our risk of injury and muscle damage. It also leads to poor performance, chronic fatigue, and burnout. Boo!

Planned rest is best

Coaches advocate both rest days and easy days.

what you are trying to avoid
---- Rest days can literally be just that – extra sleep (which many athletes, including me, skip more than they should), naps, keeping your feet up, and reading or reconnecting with your friends and family.

If you felt a small warning pain during your last workout, allowing your body to rest for a day or two is particularly important to avoid being forced onto the couch by a real injury.

---- Easy days entail active recovery – gentle exercise such as walking, hiking, yoga, stretching, or strength training for your core or muscles used less in your regular workouts – that can enhance flexibility and maintain muscle form. Taking a short, slow jog or swim may help to keep your muscles loose or give you a chance to focus on maintaining proper form, without breaking up your otherwise admirable exercise habit.

Or cross-train: USA Triathlon suggests scheduling swim workouts strategically, alternating them with higher-impact running and cycling.

Easy days allow your hard workouts to be just that – none of us can go hard every day – and the easy days make the hard days possible. If you don’t let your arms and legs recover, they won’t perform as well tomorrow!

Don’t neglect your brain!

Taking a short, easy day may help you through an otherwise super busy week.

A planned day to sleep in or read that book or article you’ve been eyeing will help keep you motivated to put in the effort on your training days.

Building in rest days allows you to plan and spend time with family, “run” errands, finish a difficult work task, and otherwise remember the other aspects of your life!

They should also help keep you fresh and avoid the boredom or staleness that can come from doing the same thing day after day.

How often should I take a rest day?

Enthusiasts repeatedly suggest one rest day each week, the activity level of which depends on your sport. Runners should rest at least their legs, if not their whole body, and triathlete programs recommend No Workouts on the weekly rest day.

In addition to planned days off (e.g. 1 day per week), serious athletes must pay attention to signs of chronic fatigue that might suggest an unplanned rest day (or two!).

Signs include: higher resting heart rates, poor sleep, frequent illness, and, obviously, feeling unusually tired.

Over time, overtraining can bring on feelings of general malaise, staleness, and depression, as well as decreased sports performance and increased risk of injury.

So keep your motivation high, your injury rate low, and your muscles and joints healthy, and mix in some planned rest to maintain that high-quality training!


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