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"Take a Load Off, Fanny": Rest Days and Recovery

I have a huge confession to make: I have a long and sordid history of struggling to take rest days. There have been periods in which I have gone weeks without taking a true rest and recovery day, and I can tell you that the results have not been pretty. Contrary to what a person might think about exercise, more is not always better, and failure to take appropriate time off for rest and recovery can be incredibly detrimental to both your fitness goals and your overall health. So, as I enjoy my scheduled Monday off, I thought I would take this time to explain why rest days are so important.

I’ve mentioned this a few times in previous blog posts, but it bears repeating that the necessary adaptations that occur within muscle fibers in response to exercise occur during periods of rest and sleep, not during the actual periods of exercise themselves. As an example, if you decide to grab a pair of dumbbells and do a couple of sets of bicep curls, your biceps are not going to get stronger as you are working them out. In fact, the opposite happens: your muscles begin to break down and fatigue. That’s why those last couple of reps are usually so difficult to push through. The process of lengthening and contracting muscle fibers under stress causes microtrauma to the tissue, which the body then rushes to repair once the process is complete. Those repairs are what make the muscle stronger, and they take approximately 48 to 72 hours to complete. What that means is that if you decided to bang out a couple more sets of bicep curls again on the following day, you’d probably fatigue a lot sooner than you did on the first day, which is probably the opposite of what you want. Why does this happen? Because the microtrauma that caused your muscles to fatigue has not yet had time to repair itself. This is why most strength training plans target different muscle groups on different days; you have your push days, you have your pull days, you have your leg days, etc. While one set of muscles is undergoing the necessary recovery phase, another set of muscles is being worked, which will then recover while yet another group gets worked. By the time the first group is targeted again, theoretically it should have had enough time to undergo the appropriate repairs that will result in stronger, tougher muscles.

All of these muscle groups, however, are not independent organisms. Your body is one, giant, integrated machine, and all of the various muscle groups are deeply interconnected. If you’ve ever tried to run hard the day after doing a targeted, intense upper body strength training session, you’ve probably experienced an unexpected amount of lower body fatigue during your run. This is because of two things: first, the central nervous system recognizes the fatigue in the upper body and sends a message to the entire body to rest; and secondly, the body is working diligently to repair the damaged muscle fibers in the upper body in order to make them stronger, while the metabolic processes that enable that to happen have an impact on the entire body, including the legs. I don’t think I have ever experienced such dead legs on race day as the morning I ran a 10K the day after an afternoon of canoeing. So, regardless of how efficient you are at training different muscle groups on different days, your body as a whole is still going to need a period of rest and recovery.

So, what happens if you don’t take these necessary rest periods? There are a few consequences, and most of them undermine all of the benefits of exercise. The nervous system, the endocrine system, the digestive system, and the cardiovascular system all have to work in perfect harmony during exercise in order to achieve positive results. By failing to allow for periods of adequate rest and recovery, these systems become overwhelmed, and that perfectly blended harmony begins to break down. As a result, the body will begin to display unwanted physiological signs of this breakdown, including increased blood pressure and heart rate, lowered immunity, increased muscle soreness, insomnia, weight fluctuations, and increased risk of injury. Psychologically, a person can begin to experience depression, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating. And biochemically, a person’s bloodwork results can show unusual electrolyte counts, low iron levels, an increase in white blood cells, and irregular hormone levels. All of these physiological, psychological, and biochemical symptoms are known collectively as overtraining syndrome, and they can range from mild to extreme depending on how badly the body is in need of adequate recovery.

To sum it all up, your body needs rest as much as it needs exercise. This, of course, does not mean sitting around on the couch bingeing Netflix and eating chips, although that’s certainly fun to do every once in a while. Usually, the best rest days come in the form of what is known as active recovery, or movement that does not put additional strain on the body. Leisurely walks, tai chi, and yoga are perfect examples of rest day activities. Combined with adequate nutrition, these rest days ensure that your body is ready to perform again at optimum level the next time, and this will help you to stay Always in Motion.

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