Here’s a little insight for all your fitness enthusiasts: rest days are just as important, if not more important, as training days. Many of us, beginners and veterans alike, sometimes fall into the trap of consistent, intense training day after day. We love it! We’ve become addicted to the feeling of accomplishment. This is a good thing! However, our addiction to fitness comes at a price when we only see the best in ourselves on the days we train. Something about not working out makes us feel worthless. This becomes a serious problem when that feeling becomes your consistent frame of mind. While hard training is extremely beneficial to our bodies we have to train smart. That ‘smart’ part of your training includes the one thing we only do if someone makes us: taking rest days.
I’m not talking about working out Monday thru Friday and taking Saturday and Sunday off. I mean proper rest days throughout the week. You already know the basic science of rest days and why they’re needed. If you forgot or do not know then it’s the rest days which allow your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal system to heal (along with your immune system and a host of other functions). During your workouts you break down muscle cells, lungs are taxed, heart muscles worked, etc. The healing portion occurs on rest days where your stressed cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems are reconstructed to make you stronger and better. The secret ingredient that causes this healing process is the Human Growth Hormone (HGH).
HGH is created by your pituitary gland to help your cells perform two very important functions: grow and regenerate. This action of HGH is continuous. After an intense workout your HGH levels go up because it recognizes your workout as stress. However, if proper rest is not taken after a workout then your HGH levels will ‘tap out’ and your cells will take longer to heal and regrow. A by-product of this is your body’s inability to store and use glycogen. Glycogen is what makes you feel energetic and ‘fit’ after a workout. The less you rest the less glycogen you have in your body. Less HGH leads to less glycogen, which leads to fewer gains, loss of gains, and injury. Most of this occurs during sleep. So get a good nights rest if you want the most out of your HGH.
Are rest days starting to make sense? I hope so. But you must consider what type of rest you need and how often you need to rest. There are two forms of rest: short-term and long-term. Short-term refers to the hours immediately after your workout. This is the ideal time to perform active rest (i.e. stretching, walking) as well as refueling (fluids, protein). Immediately after a workout is your body’s ideal time to replenish its energy stores. Protein is the primary ingredient to ingest after a workout because your body will absorb protein the fastest following a workout. Protein speeds up the healing process and helps your muscle cells grow.
Long-term recovery refers to the days you do not train throughout your yearly training cycle. This can vary greatly from person to person and has several factors determining when you should rest: current diets, workout program, sleep cycle, genetics, and more. I know this looks like a lot of factors to consider but it’s much easier than you think to know when to take days off from training.
An easy rule for most trainees to follow regarding rest days is to train 2 days on, 1 day off, 2 days on, 1 day off, 1 day on. After following this protocol for several weeks you’ll have a better idea of how often you want to train and rest. At first you’ll think you can train every day and be fine. This is a MISTAKE! Do not assume you’re ready to train just because you don’t feel drained. In order to keep you from making this mistake I strongly recommend NOT training 3 days in a row. Unless you’re performing a split routine like a body builder (i.e. Chest Mondays, Back Tuesdays, Leg Wednesdays) you do not want to stress your body that often. Even professional athletes and Olympians rarely train hard 3 days consecutively. If someone who gets paid doesn’t do it then you probably shouldn’t either. Did I mention they’re getting paid? If their livelihood depends on rest days then you would be wise to take a pointer or two from their training program.
If you decide to ignore my advice then please pay attention to the ‘tell tell’ signs of overtraining. These include: depression (mental and physical), insomnia, irritability, sudden mood changes, and lack of a desire to train. Factors that can affect these symptoms are your diet, training intensity, sleeping patterns, and current level of health and fitness. Assuming you’ve followed every detail and listened to your body you will eventually tire from your training program, all trainees and athletes do. When you’ve hit this point it is time to take an entire week OFF from training. That’s SEVEN days of zero training. Not 3 days. Not 5 days. Seven full days of relaxation. This is what we call the valley portion of training. All smart training cycles are built to have peaks and valleys in order to see continually growth and improvement. If you treat your training like a linear path forever rising then you are running up to the edge of a cliff. Eventually, you’ll crash and burn.
It is my belief you should perform very low impact activities on rest days. These include light swimming, brisk walking, stretching, an easy bike ride, or maybe some Yoga. Whatever you do you should be able to hold a conversation with the person beside you without tiring. If you can’t, the activity is too intense. Don’t make it complicated. Train hard, refuel your body, and rest.