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The Importance Of Exercise Rest And Recovery

Rest days form an important part of any exercise or training routine.

Man taking a break from running

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If you want to improve your sports performance, training is key, but rest is just as important.

Building adequate recovery time into your training schedule will help you meet your performance goals faster with a reduced risk of injury.

What Do We Mean By Recovery Time?

Recovery time is when you stop your bout of exercise or training and return to a recovered state.

There are two types of recovery, short-term and long-term. Short-term recovery refers to the time directly after exercise and is the most common form of recovery time that happens within hours of an exercise, training session or competition finishing. Long-term recovery refers to longer periods of time, including days or weeks built into a heavy, seasonal training programme.

Recovery isn’t just about post-workout rest, it encompasses sleep, nutrition and lifestyle factors – all of which play into optimising your body for performance.

How Important Are Rest Days?

When you exercise several physical and psychological changes take place affecting your metabolism, peripheral and central nervous system, skeletal and muscular system, endocrine system, immune system, and cardiovascular system.

Putting too much strain on your body through too much exercise and not enough rest will have a detrimental impact on your health, not just your sports performance.

The consequences of this mean that many of the body’s systems are affected, such as metabolism, bone health, menstruation, immunity, mood, and cardiovascular health [1].

Even if you are eating the correct type and quantity of food to support your level of exercise, if you aren’t also building adequate rest and recovery time you are putting your body under stress.

Signs that you may not be giving your body enough recovery time include:

  • low mood
  • catching colds and getting ill more frequently
  • poor sleep
  • irregular or no periods (women)
  • low libido
  • weak bones
  • muscle fatigue

What Are The Different Types of Exercise Recovery?

There are two types of exercise recovery, active or inactive:

1. What Is Active Exercise Recovery?

Active recovery is where you carry out light, low-intensity exercises.

There are many benefits to active recovery because it can aid muscle repair and promote blood flow compared to inactive.

Research shows that active recovery helps to clear lactic acid build-up which interferes with muscle contraction and contributes to muscle fatigue [2].

The overall aim of active recovery is to enable athletes to tolerate higher training loads e.g., frequency, intensity and volume as well as enhance performance [3].

Staying active on rest days is not difficult with light cardio-based exercises or low-intensity workouts, like:

  • yoga
  • walking
  • gentle jogging
  • cycling
  • pilates
  • massage
  • gentle stretching.

The premise of active recovery is that it is low impact and slow-paced compared to your usual exercise routine. When participating in active recovery, your heart rate should be above its usual resting rate and the activity should last 20-40 minutes.

Rather than specified workouts, you can incorporate some of your daily activities into your active recovery programme. Some examples include:

  • housework
  • walking the dog
  • playing with the kids
  • gentle cycle to work

2. What Is Inactive Exercise Recovery?

Inactive recovery means just that, resting, doing nothing. It is often only reserved for when athletes are injured but inactive recovery is an important part of a busy training schedule and should be built into your exercise programme.

Sleep is often an overlooked factor in a healthy lifestyle but it’s important for so many aspects of your health and forms an important part of inactive recovery.

That’s because sleep enhances growth, muscle recovery, and aids physical performance. Too little sleep raises cortisol levels, knocking our finally balanced hormone network out of synch, it also reduces the growth hormone which is needed for muscle repair. On top of that, too little sleep means we don’t have the energy or mental capacity to cope meaning you are less likely to be motivated to exercise.

How Many Rest Days Do You Need?

As a minimum, you should always allow at least one rest day per week. However, the number of rest days you’ll specifically need will depend on:

  • Training intensity – high, moderate, or low
  • Training style – frequency and volume of training
  • How long you’ve been training for – days, weeks, months, years
  • Lifestyle stressors – manual labour job, sleep length, and quality
  • Your age - the older you get the more rest days you need

In addition to the above, for women, it’s important to understand how your monthly hormone fluctuations affect you and to adapt your rest and recovery accordingly. You can gain a deeper understanding of how your hormone network fluctuates across your menstrual cycle with Female Hormone Mapping.

Moderate To Vigorous Activity

If you’re completing light cardio, activities like walking the dog or slow dancing, you probably won’t need rest days.

However, the more intense the activity becomes the more rest you’ll need to take.

So, for moderate-intensity exercise, you should generally aim to take a rest day every 3 to 5 days, depending on how you feel. Of course, this will increase if you take part in more vigorous or high-intensity workouts.

Active rest days are key and can include activities like gentle stretching and yoga.

Weight Training

If weight training is your thing, then you must rotate the muscles you have worked.

Once you have exercised a specific set of muscles e.g., legs, then you should allow them to rest for two days to enable them to heal and repair.

On leg rest days, you can train other muscle groups like the chest and arms. The easiest way to plan your rest days is to assign specific muscle groups to specific days, for example legs on Mondays, arms on Tuesdays etc.

Running

If you’re a runner, you’ll need a similar approach to weight training. Choose the days you will run and then on rest days train the muscles you don’t use when you are running.

It’s also important that you don’t run too much when you first start, leading to injury.

Ultimately, there is no fixed number of rest days that you need. Rest days should be calculated individually according to the factors listed above. Importantly, listen to your body.

Conclusion

Rest and recovery are often overlooked as part of an exercise or training programme, with inactive rest days only taken to recover from injury.

Rest days are crucial whether you are a budding beginner or a seasoned pro. Building adequate recovery time into your regular exercise routine or training schedule, alongside correct nutrition, will enable your body to perform at its best.

Read Next: 4 Sports Nutrition Mistakes You Could Be Making>>

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References

  1. Statuta, S, M et al. (2017). Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). British Journal of Sports Medicine: 51(21) p 1509.
  2. Hinzpeter, J et al. (2014). Effect of Active Versus Passive Recovery on Performance During Intrameet Swimming Competition. Sports Health: 6(2), pp 119-121.
  3. Andersson, H et al. (2008). Neuromuscular Fatigue and Recovery in Elite
Medically Reviewed
Dr Nicky Keay
Chief Medical Officer, BA, MA (Cantab), MB, BChir, MRCP.​
This article has been medically reviewed by Forth's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Nicky Keay.
Nicky has extensive clinical and research experience in the fields of endocrinology and sport and exercise medicine. Nicky is a member of the Royal College of Physicians, Honorary Fellow in the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University and former Research Fellow at St. Thomas’ Hospital.

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