There are times when the best workout is no workout. Today’s post will discuss the importance of rest and active recovery as a strategic part of your fitness regimen. If you’ve read a Beachbody fitness guide you’ve seen rest days on your schedule, and probably recovery weeks, too. These aren’t just there for beginners. We all need rest and, as a general rule, the harder you train the more rest you need.
To begin, here’s an old article titled Recovery 101 that I wrote back in Beachbody’s infancy (it’s newsletter 58, so probably 2002). The news references are dated but the subject matter hasn’t changed in a decade.
Rest is a vital part of any fitness program. Of course, you’ve got to do the work in order to validate this point, but lack of rest can be just as harmful as lack of exercise. While the latter leads to a much more obvious result, obesity, the former will lead to less noticeable–yet every bit as damaging—problems, such as chronic fatigue syndrome. These examples are the extreme ends of the spectrum. In the middle lies the far subtler and exceedingly frustrating condition, known as the plateau.
After a brief analysis of the physiology of recovery it concludes with some strategies to speed up your recovery, including hot/cold showers, one of my personal favorites. You might want to bookmark this for your reference library.
Next we have nutritional considerations, covered in an article I wrote a few years later, which goes into more depth on both fronts, fitness and nutrition:
When it comes to eating for exercise, the most important time slot is immediately after your workout. Your body will only store up enough glycogen (blood sugar from carbohydrates) to get you through about an hour or so of hard exercise. At the end of a workout, our glycogen stores tend to be extinguished and need to be replenished. The quicker we can replenish these, the faster we will recover.
Since protein makes up muscle tissue and muscle tissue is what’s broken down during exercise, it makes sense to think we need to consume protein after a workout. But this isn’t how the process works. Protein is absorbed by the body very slowly, whereas sugar is utilized very rapidly. The longer it takes to get nutrients after a workout the slower our bodies are able to recover.
There’s a typo in the first paragraph (looks like an attempt at clarification that went awry) in that it’s glycogen, which is stored in your muscles, and blood sugar (glucose) but it doesn’t change the message whatsoever. We have a limited supply of energy to train hard and when it’s gone, the quicker we replenish it the faster we recover.
history’s greatest riders relaxing at le tour. “the tour is won in bed,” said eddie merckx, on right
One thing neither article explains too well is that we don’t always know when we need to rest or push through pain. No matter how meticulously we listen to our body, record performance, and thoroughly plan our schedule our bodies, at times, will have other ideas about how much rest is enough. In a blog post from 2009 titles When Not To Bring It, I go into some depth,
There are times when you shouldn’t train. Most programs and trainers tell you what to do and when to do it, but we’re all different. And human. And therefore subject to the laws of physiology. “No pain, no gain” aside, there are times when the smart move is to skip your scheduled workout. Yesterday, for me, was one of those days.
The article begins and ends with an anecdote that is not uncommon. In fact, searching for it I found 7 pages of posts written by me concerning recovery. It’s a very important topic. As for the anecdote, well, I’ve got another, which just happened to me on Sunday.
iris and finnegan not buying my claim of rest day
I didn’t think I needed rest because I haven’t been training very hard. I have been training a lot, probably daily, for quite a long time with neither rest days or planned recovery periods. Since I do a ton (at least half of my training days) of active rest days I can often sustain a “no plan” period for a very long time.
My definition of active rest, however, can be a little bit absurd. If I hike or ride in the mountains with the dogs for 3 hours—usually racking up thousands of feet of elevation change—I call it active rest. Sometimes it is but there are certainly times I push it too far and it’s not. I don’t always take notes (I should though).
Anyways, I’d been sleeping poorly lately (hello, first sign of overtraining!), traveling a ton for work (um, dude, that includes stress—one of the biggest factors around recovery), and had just come off a 5 sport day where I did two mtn bike rides, some hiking, easy climbing, running, and a T25 workout (but I never went hard, in my mind). So why was I surprised when Sunday’s long ride from Park City to SLC over the Wasatch on my single speed completely sucked? I had absolutely nothing in the tank. I couldn’t bonk because I started already bonked. I couldn’t get my heart rate up, had to walking anything remotely steep, and all-in-all barely made it home. At which I, after all my years of experience, was surprised until I thought the whole thing through.
Overtraining is difficult to understand. It’s insidious in its effect. We always want to believe we can handle whatever it is that we are doing. We’re trained, by society, to think we can always do more and that physical shortcomings are from lack of effort. Too much effort is rarely mentioned. Yet at a conference of athletes once a speaker began his address with, “You’re all triathletes. That means 95% of you are overtrained right now.”
Your body needs rest in order to get fitter. Consider that fact each and every day.