Wait, what?! Am I resting enough?? You mean instead of slogging out tons of miles running, biking or swimming, I should be laying on my couch watching TV??? Sign me up!!
It a very interesting aspect of the lifestyle we live, the concept that more isn’t always better. Put another way, putting in too much hard work can cause as much harm to our physical well-being as doing too little, maybe even more. We all know that getting fit, whether for a particular sport or just overall health involves training our bodies to go just a little bit further or a little bit harder than what we feel comfortable doing. That little extra exertion forces our bodies to adapt to that added stress which translates to an increased ability to handle that effort. We also know that in order to handle this stress to our bodies, we need to nourish ourselves with healthy foods and adequate fluids to keep the fire stoked. We also know that getting enough good-quality sleep is also crucial. Sounds pretty simple…just train, eat and sleep and you can do anything! Well guess what, there’s another part to the equation, rest.
First off, you’ll note that I differentiate ‘rest’ from ‘sleep’. That’s not to say that sleep isn’t an important part of resting but it’s just that, only a part of it. The word ‘rest' is an all encompassing term that represents a number of different factors. Before going any further, it’s important to note that contrary to many people’s belief, we make our gains when we rest, not when we train. By pushing our bodies when we train, we actually tear down our muscles ever so slightly. The effort it takes to exceed our ‘comfort’ threshold pushes our muscles beyond what they’re used to with the after affect being soreness, tightness and other manifestations of our bodies saying ‘hey, what’s up with THAT’. As our body recovers, our muscles will rebuild themselves just a tad bit stronger to handle the increased workload. Admittedly, this layman’s explanation of human physiology is nothing that will impress someone from the medical field but that’s the long and the short of it. Taking it one step further, you can understand that if we continually push our bodies without allowing them to catch up, you’re defeating the purpose of the workout in the first place. Not only will you not get the gains you seek but you will end up injured.
As hard as we push ourselves in our chosen sports, you’d think we would welcome the concept of rest/recovery. Here you are, being told that you have to rest, how great is that? Well, it’s not good news to many of us who enjoy the rush of endorphins from our over-distance work outs and the sense of well-being we get reflecting on the days’ efforts. So much of our sense of self is rooted in our fitness levels, muscular bodies and six-pack abs and any day not working on those great qualities ends up feeling like a waste. Even worse, some of us, hell, a LOT of us harbor scary thoughts of weight gain and diminished strength from taking just one day off. We are what we are and this is a very common fear of true endurance athletes, old and young.
First of all, rest and recovery don’t have to mean days off from training. It just means you have to give the muscles you hammered yesterday a break today and maybe tomorrow. You can do other activities that achieve those great physical and mental boosts as long as they don’t directly stress whats already worn out. I like to mix up my running days with weight training, Yoga and once in awhile, swimming. Not only does this variety allow for recovery, it also keeps things from getting stale and boring. The same concept holds true when keeping our focus to just one activity. If it’s running, mix up your long runs with easy recovery runs on the days following. If you’re going to do speed work at the track, try to space those workouts a few days away from your long day. There are many ways of accomplishing this and not everyone will respond the same way. Only by experimenting and, this is important, paying attention to how you feel will you know what works for you. Weight lifting holds with the same principles, never work the same body parts two days in a row. I like to group my lifting days into two categories, push and pull. My push days involve body parts that move weights away from me, chest, shoulders and triceps. I start with the biggest muscle group, my chest, do the next biggest, my shoulders and finish with the smallest, my triceps. All of the exercises are based on some form of ‘pushing’. The next weight workout will incorporate my back and biceps, muscles that essentially ‘pull’. That’s also the day I do legs.
While you can adequately rest and recover while working out every day, there will be days when your best workout will be the one you don’t do. I hate days where I don’t do something but like it or not, sometimes you have to take a vacation. These days are usually preceded by days where my workouts leave me feeling stale. I’ll notice that I find it very easy to find excuses to ‘short cut’ or not push as hard as usual. When you have those, and you will, sometimes you just need to chill. Your body is telling you it needs a break. Again, this malaise means you’re not adequately able to recover so every workout just pushes you a bit further back. It’s just not your workouts that are telling you to rest, you’ll find your entire day will feel flat and devoid of energy. Not all rest days are the result of workouts. Work and family demands wear us out as well. Life is a workout in itself and the recovery principles are just as important. Another variable is ‘age’. Simply put, as we get older, we need more rest. Our bodies don’t bounce back as they once did and pushing beyond their ability to recover will land you on the injury list. I have found that by planning one day off a week on a specific day, the recovery aspect takes on more of a planned part of my training and is therefore easier to accept. I don’t feel guilty as I sometimes do if I just blow a day off.
Look at it this way, it didn’t take you one or two days to get IN the shape you’re in so one or two days off is not going to get you OUT of shape. When you do take a day off, enjoy it! You've certainly earned it!