one of the best and most fulfilling feelings in the world is pushing, as hard as you can, to crush a physical goal – race training, competition preparation, whatever it may be. There’s just something so nice about seeing a very concrete goal, and working day-by-day towards it. That being said, one of the most important parts of training is knowing when to slow it down and take a break. Coming to you as the biggest former skeptic of the “rest day,” I’m here now to say that it is, without a doubt, one of the most crucial elements to your training, and even just to your living. I used to do literally everything I could think of to avoid complete and total rest, opting for “light training” days when my body felt fatigued… or even just not, and pushing through what I now see as my body’s desperate cry for a break. The idea of going a full 24 hours without doing something intensely physical seemed to simply not be an option. Little did I realize that, in addition to severely setting back my training with this mindset, I was also putting my body and mind at serious risk.
To understand the importance of rest days, it’s crucial to first understand what exactly is happening when we are working out. What we’re doing during a really hard workout is actually applying a stimulus to our bodies that is elevating our heart rate, breaking down our muscle fibers, and causing our adrenal gland to secrete adrenaline and cortisol – essentially, we’re telling out body that it’s going to need to get stronger to survive. The “getting fitter” part of working out actually comes after the work – while you’re eating (!) and resting post-workout, your body is working to repair tissue damage, strengthen the heart and muscles, restore all of the fuel you just used, and better circulate oxygen through your body. Post-workout recovery is when your body starts to become all-around stronger and more efficient. By engaging in this cycle regularly, little by little, you’re getting more muscular and more fit.
However, the problem comes when we keep stacking up these little changes consistently, without ever truly giving our bodies a chance to completely catch up to all of the work that we’ve been doing. Since post-workout recovery isn’t really true recovery as much as it is just giving our bodies the time and space to implement the changes that we just made, it doesn’t actually count as resting. As important as it is to maintain a regular schedule of activities and workouts, it is equally important to allow your body regular rest, so that it can keep up (healthily) with everything that you’re wanting it to do. The frequency and duration of your rest days is entirely dependent on what activities you’re regularly doing, but for people who engage in fairly intense physical training pretty frequently, maybe consider taking one day a week where you do nothing – actually nothing – intensely physical. Take a full 24 hours to get ample sleep, eat plenty of vegetables and lean proteins, and allow your body to completely recover.
Rest days might look a little different during training for a race – it’s recommended on almost every training plan that you should absolutely take one day off per week, to recover from the build-up and intensity of training. Optimal performance in an event, say a race, is actually achieved by allowing your training to peak a few weeks before your race, and then allowing the next two weeks for your body to shed any signs of the fatigue, so that you’re ready to perform at your absolute best when it counts. It takes a little bit of time for your body to completely get rid of all of the built up tension and fatigue that comes from training, which is a necessary process when you’re going to be asking it to perform maximally. During these slightly longer rest periods that proceed (and definitely follow) a race, you have an awesome opportunity to do a lot of yoga and pilates, which will supplement all of the strength and endurance work you’ve been putting in, and allow your body to strengthen and develop those tiny, crucial stabilizer muscles that usually get ignored in higher impact strength work. AND you also have a great chance to shake up your sweat – maybe you don’t want to be running max distance right before your big race, and you definitely won’t want to be right afterwards, so instead take the time to go hiking or paddleboarding, getting creative and unconventional with the way that you’re getting your endorphins.
However you want to tailor it to fit your lifestyle and sweat schedule, it’s so, so unbelievably crucial to be very mindful of scheduling in some days of savasana.