Most of us are aware that beating ourselves into a pulp day after day in the gym without rest eventually results in performance decline, overtraining, or even worse, injury. Despite this being common sense, there are still many individuals who neglect to do so. The "more is always better" mantra plagues individuals who would certainly benefit from "working smarter, not harder" instead. It's easy to speculate why this may be, and perhaps it is due to one or a number of the following reasons:
- They fear they will decline or fall behind if they take a day off
- They feel pressured and compare themselves to others who may appear to never stop training (newsflash they too need rest)
- It is an outlet and the only thing they can think to do when stressed or bored
- A true lack of knowledge on how the body works and adapts to stressors.
Wrapping the mind around why rest days are critical, as well as having a deeper understanding of how our body adapts to training stress, can alleviate these feelings and assist us in taking a more intelligent approach to training.
What Happens When We Do and Don't Rest
The stressors we encounter and how we react to them can be explained by the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) theory, which was originally discussed and researched by Dr. Hans Selye in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology in 1946 (3). It is broken into three stages; alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
When we engage in physical activity (anything from hill sprints to yoga and everything in between), a distress signal is sent to the part of our brain called the hypothalamus. This initiates the release of glucocorticoid hormones, which in turn release adrenaline and cortisol, which are most commonly known as the "stress hormones." This can cause a person's blood pressure to rise and heart rate to increase, putting one into what is known as the "fight or flight" response. The body then attempts to counteract the physical changes it has experienced in the alarm stage by reducing blood pressure, dropping heart rate, and returning hormones to homeostasis. This part of the GAS theory is critical to understand because if the stressor remains present, the body will remain in the alarm stage with a plethora of negative responses (more on that later). The magnitude of a particular stressor is also important here, with a greater stress response necessitating a longer resistance phase. If one does not allow for adequate recovery and remains in the alarm phase for an extended period of time, they will ultimately find themselves in what is known as the exhaustion phase. This occurs when the body has depleted its valuable energy resources and is unable to adequately recover. This is often noted by symptoms such as lethargy, anxiety, depression, poor sleep, weight changes, and a host of other issues.
It should also be noted that the ability of one to recover and handle stress reaches far beyond training stress. Recovery is highly individual and depends on a host of factors including but not limited to age, gender, dietary habits, sleeping patterns, life and relationship stress, and training stress. From an athletic standpoint, it is well documented that under-recovery is highly detrimental to performance and can increase the risk of injury.
A striking number of individuals still suffer from overtraining or non-functional overreaching (NFOR) year in and year out. In one 2013 study examining elite Swiss athletes, it was found that 9% suffered from overtraining syndrome, and 21% suffered from NFOR due to their training and competition schedule (1). A simple google scholar search for "overtraining syndrome" returns nearly results alone, making a conservative argument that hundreds if not thousands of athletes suffer from the same issues on an annual basis.
When To Take A Rest Day
Keeping track of how the body responds to training is of the utmost importance to gauge how well one is recovering and balancing life stressors in general. Elite athletes may use advanced methods such as saliva sampling to analyze hormonal balance and advanced tests such as force plate jumping analysis to survey a host of physical markers. The majority of these methods are unnecessary for the general population, but nowadays, simple methods such as heart rate variability and wellness surveys are widely available to help guide training decisions for everybody.
Despite the influx of all this new technology over the past decade, telling us whether to take it easy or not, a perfect model still doesn't exist. Leveraging technology to the best of our ability should be matched with intuition and, as previously mentioned, common sense. Recognizing soreness, aches, and pains are important but so too are your sleeping patterns, relationships, workload, and general well-being. If you've managed to only get 4 hours of sleep, recently been in a fight with your significant other, and are coming off a 10-hour workday, it may be wise to back off for the day no matter how "ready" you fitness watch or any other apparatus says you are. We can do ourselves a favor by taking calculated rest days over required rest days by the way we layout our training programs.
Here are some general tips that will help ensure your program is designed for optimal recovery and results.
- High-intensity days should always be followed by lower intensity days
- Volume and workload should oscillate both within the week and over multiple weeks/months
- Exercises and movements should frequently vary (think every mesocycle or roughly 3-4 weeks) to ensure overuse injuries do not occur
- Training to failure should be avoided and used on extremely rare occasions.
There will never be a precise answer as to when a rest day should be taken or not, but by applying the outlined principles that were previously mentioned, we can take rest days on our watch before we are forced to do so.
What Should A Rest Day Look Like?
Knowing that rest days are necessary is one thing but implementing them appropriately is another. Rest days should not involve copious amounts of sofa to butt contact time or excessive caloric intake. They should include specific active and passive recovery modalities that aid the recovery process. Employing some light aerobic activity may aid in the recovery process as well as fascial release methods such as foam rolling and massage (2). Taking the dogs for a walk, pushing a light sled around for 20-30 minutes intermittently, or even swimming a few easy laps are all great ideas that can easily be incorporated into a program. As a general rule of thumb, recovery days should leave you feeling better and more rejuvenated after the session than you felt going in. If you feel greater fatigue or worse overall, you may have just added another day of exercise, not a rest day. Additional passive recovery modalities could include sauna, cold water immersion, getting a massage, and electrical stimulation. Last but not least, it is critical to ensure that proper nutrition is in place throughout the recovery process. Taking insufficient protein, carbohydrates, and fats are essential as well as a host of healthy micronutrients. Don't be fooled into thinking that you have to embody the life of a slug on your rest days. You should remain active and do something you enjoy at a relatively low intensity. Remember, your training program is only as good as what you can recover from. Under-recovery equals underperformance.
1) Birrer, D., Lienhard, D., Williams, C. A., Röthlin, P., & Morgan, G. (2013). Prevalence of non-functional overreaching and the overtraining syndrome in Swiss elite athletes. Schweiz Z Sportmedizin Sporttraumatol, 61, 23-29.
2) Mancinelli, C. A., Davis, D. S., Aboulhosn, L., Brady, M., Eisenhofer, J., & Foutty, S. (2006). The effects of massage on delayed onset muscle soreness and physical performance in female collegiate athletes. Physical therapy in sport, 7(1), 5-13.
3) Seyle, H. (1946, February 1). The general adaptation syndrome and the diseases of adaptation. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology, 6(2), 117–230