Updated: Mar 22
“Stay active and get regular exercise.” It seems everywhere you turn, this piece of advice is thrown at us by people who know best – doctors, physical therapists, personal trainers, coaches, etc. But, just like everything else in life, there needs to be a balance to your workout routine. Whether you’re training for a competition or feeling extra motivated, more isn’t always better.
Rest days are just as important as exercise. In fact, a successful fitness regimen isn’t complete without rest days. Taking regular breaks allows your body to recover and repair. It’s an important part of progress, regardless of your fitness level or sport. Otherwise, skipping rest days can lead to overtraining or burnout.
If you’re guilty of this, don’t feel bad; it’s a common mistake made by many people new to exercising, and I’ve even seen experienced endurance athletes guilty of it as well. But as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, I’m here to tell you that working too hard, or too often, will negatively impact your health, your fitness program, and even your sleep (It’s true!!! More on that below).
Not to get too philosophical on you folks, but Aristotle is famous for saying moderation is the way to attaining happiness. This can be applied to many aspects of life but is especially true in exercise. Let’s read on together to find out why.
REASONS FOR TAKING A BREAK
You might be thinking “So it’s the start of the year, which means the start of the new me”. You’re all excited to train for that half-marathon or hoping to lose X% of body fat by year end. And, as a result, you work out every day, thinking this is the best way to accomplish your goals, right? WRONG!!!! YOU NEED REST DAYS! Why? You’re about to find out.
Reduce The Chance of Injury
When you train daily without giving yourself downtime, you increase your risk for overuse injuries. While your intentions may be good, pushing your body too hard and too often without a break will most likely result in wear and tear as you’re not giving your muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons and joints the needed time to recover. I’ve seen clients develop stress fractures from overuse which required weeks of rest to properly heal. By intentionally adding rest into your routine, you’ll prevent your body from reaching that point.
Allow Your Muscles to Repair and Grow
Simply put, your muscles heal during rest. Think about it…. when you lift weights, you’re essentially impacting individual muscle fibers that sometimes break down (i.e., muscle soreness). So, if exercising is breaking down muscle, you need to allow time for the recovery process to take place. That’s why muscles will begin to heal during resting periods and can heal even faster during rest day workouts. Why? Because they have more access to a healthy blood flow, so they feel less tired and can remain flexible. Without the appropriate rest period for your muscles to repair and grow, you’re not going to get the benefit of your training.
Improve Overall Sleep
I’ve seen many athletes complain they have a hard time getting quality sleep due to feeling too buzzed or wired at bedtime. The culprit? You guessed it…over-training. Physical activity increases energy-boosting hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. While both are essential for good health, too much of each keeps your body at a high-stress level. If you are exercising without taking a rest day, your body will overproduce these hormones, preventing you from getting a night of sound sleep. No one wants to feel like they’ve just taken a shot of espresso right before getting into bed. So, if you wish to get a better night’s sleep, taking those rest days will allow your hormones to return to a normal, balanced state.
Restore Your Mental State
When you work out every day, especially if you aren’t varying your
workouts, psychological staleness sets in. This usually comes from a combination of physical and mental fatigue. Taking a rest period can revitalize your hunger for exercise and help prevent burnout. Remember, mental fatigue can be every bit as detrimental as physical fatigue and taking a rest day helps to recharge the psyche. I also find that rest days give me time to review my current workout load. Sometimes even the most well-intentioned and experienced athletes will fall into monotonous workout routines and just go through the motions. On your rest days, you can take the time to assess whether you are hitting your goals or if you need to make changes to your routine.
TELLTALE SIGNS YOU NEED A REST DAY
So how do you know if you’re in need of a rest day? If you notice any of the following signs, it might be time to take a break:
While it’s normal to feel sore after exercise, persistent soreness that lasts more than a few days is not a good sign. It means your muscles haven’t recovered from past workouts. Training when your muscles are really sore makes it harder for you to maintain good form and do your best. Give the muscles time to fully recover and rebuild before they are broken down again with exercise. If the soreness is severe, take a rest day or work a different muscle group. If it’s mild, do a good warm up and don’t hit the same muscles hard again.
No one expects you to be strong every day. But once you start to notice that your usual workouts seem much harder than they normally do, or not seeing as much progress as you would like, it’s time to take a break. Trust me (hey, why would I lie to you?), by taking a rest day, it will help you recharge, gain energy, and perform your next workout to the best of your ability.
Does everyone and everything seem to irritate you? When you are physically burnt out, your hormones become imbalanced, which can cause changes like irritability, crankiness, and mood swings. Before that next fight with your significant other or co-worker, take that needed rest day and see what happens.
Many people exercise in hopes of improving their sleep but as I mentioned above, overtraining will have the opposite effect. You don’t want your hormones all imbalanced – relax, rest and watch how blissful a night’s sleep you will have.
While insufficient fluid intake and even hot weather are usually to blame, overtraining is another reason why your body cannot rehydrate. When working out too much or too hard, no matter how much water you keep drinking, you may end up feeling unsatisfied or dehydrated. Not allowing your body the proper time to rest could put your body in a catabolic state, which means it’s wasting away, a symptom of which is dehydration.
REST DAYS – THE IN'S AND OUT'S
When it comes to planning your workout, there’s basically three types of “days” you’ll have scheduled: training dates, pure rest days and active rest days (sometimes known as active recovery days). While training days are pretty self-explanatory, it’s the latter two that get blended together. The one you end up adding into your fitness routine will depend on where you are in the season, what your training plan has been like, and how you have been training.
Allow me first to explain the difference between rest days and active rest days, as it’s important to note the distinction.
A pure rest day means just that – letting your body rest. You’re not working out, you’re not exercising, you’re not going for a 3-mile run or spending an hour on the Stairmaster. The goal of the pure rest day is for your body to recover….pure and simple.
Active rest days, on the other hand, are the days where you complete lower-intensity and lower-volume exercises compared to your normal training session. Examples include yoga, playing a sport with your kids, hiking with friends, leisurely biking…..you get the idea. In general, when taking an active rest day, I recommend you do an activity that’s different from your normal exercise routine. The overall goal of an active rest day is to add variety to your training, and to listen to your body when your training should be dialed back to address specific mobility instead of a workout.
When deciding on whether to take a full rest or active recovery day, always listen to your body (trust me….your body will tell you what it can and cannot do). Being smart and aware about what you have upcoming on your training schedule is just as important as well. If you see that you a few hard days of back-to-back training coming up, take a full rest day. If you have a moderate day followed by a pure rest day and then a hard day, using an active recovery day may be best to keep the legs moving and to flush them out. Otherwise, if you feel like you were pretty “beat up” even from a moderate day with a hard training day coming up fast, then taking a full rest day may be best.
Hope that helps!!!
As always, if you need any advice on how to incorporate rest days in to your training program, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 516-387-4669. I’m always available to answer your questions.