For those serious about improving their fitness, it’s easy to fall prey to the mentality that rest days are a sign of weakness. And as for those “easy day” workouts — why should you ever not work as hard as you can?
More than anything, rest days and easy workouts are a mental challenge. Everyone knows how not to exercise, or how to run slowly. But it’s hard to convince yourself that you are not going to slower or weaker if you take time off to let your body recover.
Of course, you have to work hard sometimes in order to get fit. But you need to be strategic. Well-timed rest days and easy workouts, plus consistently good sleep at night are the often-overlooked essentials involved in meeting your fitness goals.
How your body responds to exercise
The reason is that when you work out — be it lifting weights, crossfit, running, swimming, or whatever activity you enjoy — you break down your body’s strength so that it can build itself back again. So the exertion is key — but so is the recovery.
Joe Friel, famed multisport coach and advocate of the paleodiet, describes this process in one of his “training bibles” as “overloading” your body’s system with exercise. As your body recovers, it “overcompensates,” or becomes stronger than what it was previously. You’re more fit!
And while the “overloading” part of the equation is tangible — you decide to do however many chin-ups or run this many kilometres per hour — the rest portion is decidedly less so.
Friel points out that for an athlete new to a discipline or to exercise altogether, overloading can be accomplished very easily — lifting a few weights, a handful of push-ups, or just making it through a new fitness class.
For an experienced and fit athlete, however, incorporating rest and easy workouts requires far more finesse. The right combination of exertion and rest in your training plan is a delicate balance. For that, the insights that an experienced coach or personal trainer can offer are particularly valuable!
Sleep is essential to your fitness goals
When you sleep, your body releases growth hormone that permits the body to recover from exercise. Friel writes, “Sleeping and working out have a synergestic effect on fitness. Each can cause the release of growth hormone from the pituary gland. Growth hormone speeds recovery, rebuilds muscles, and breaks down body fat.”
In other words, without sufficient sleep, your body simply cannot take advantage of the hard work you do in your workouts. Whatever your goals may be — to become stronger, lose weight, increase your endurance or speed, or improve your muscle tone — you’ll struggle to meet them.
At the extreme, if you sleep poorly and ignore opportunities to recover, you’ll find yourself constantly tired, have persistent muscle fatigue, and may find yourself dreading workouts that you once enjoyed.
Eventually, you may end up being veritably overtrained — a potentially dangerous condition that involves symptoms such as chronic fatigue, inexplicable weight loss or gain, and amenorrhea (the loss of menstrual periods) in women, as well a cluster of symptoms associated with an impaired immune response such as infections, slow-healing cuts, and swollen lymph glands. And of course if you’re feeling like this, you’ve lost the benefits of living an active lifestyle!
Many coaches and trainers insist on the importance of a good night’s sleep to training — typically eight hours a night — and point out that napping can be a helpful habit, too, as it’s an extra burst of growth hormone partway through the day.
So next time you find yourself dragging your feet on the way to your workout, ask yourself: Am I giving myself the rest I need? Because if you are constantly working out full-throttle while short-changing yourself on rest and sleep, you will find that your fitness will not improve. Period.