Ah, the elusive “rest day” talk. Everyone knows they need rest days, but why do we need them? When should we take them? Are you taking too much rest? These are all questions I am often asked. All too often we see athletes go from one extreme to another. We either see athletes take too many rest days or not enough. Believe it or not, the answer can be found in science.
First, let’s talk about why we need rest days. Rest days are essential for muscle recovery. I know it seems counter-productive at times. We feel like we can go on and we feel like during those rest days we are losing our gains. Rest days are actually crucial for your muscles to grow and repair themselves. Rest days allow protein repair growth of the muscle tissues. Most already know this but what you may not know is that a rest day also prepares the body for a new cycle of training. If you follow CrossFit.com you will be very familiar with the three days on, one day off cycle of training. When you are doing high intensity workouts the goal is to give an all-out effort. When the intensity drops off, so do your results. My favorite example is the workout Fran (21-15-9 of thrusters and pull ups). The workout is designed to be a fast sub 5-minute workout (I believe the world record is 1:58). If it takes 45 minutes to do the workout, you missed the point. When it comes to rest days, some people will work out all week to include Saturday and then allow themselves Sunday off. If this is you, it does not give you the ability to give 100% effort on Monday. After a while your body will be so taxed that your intensity will suffer. In the book “Supertraining”, Mel Siff says that an extreme workout can be done every 72 hours. You can see this theory practiced in the Westside Barbell System where a max effort and dynamic effort workout are performed 72 hours apart. In the CrossFit.com world, every 72 hours will give you a rest day. Giving your body a rest day allows you to give an all out effort when you step into the gym. A common misconception is that going to the gym is better than not going to the gym. If we are talking about mental rest then yes, but if we are talking physical rest then it is important to listen to your body. If you cannot give an all-out effort into your metcons then it is not always the best idea to do them. Sometimes the muscle breakdown is too much and the recovery process will take longer. Another common problem is what constitutes a rest day. Some will use rest days as days that they sit and watch TV and do nothing. This is not the best strategy for your rest days. A rest day is best used more as an active recovery day. For me, on a rest day I take my dogs on a mile or more walk. This allows me a low intensity use of my muscles while still using them. Other active recovery ideas are very low intensity jogs, low intensity rows or assault bikes, or just a walk through the mall. Rest days don’t have to be difficult or scientific just low intensity movement. Active recovery should just be enough to allow your muscles to repair themselves without staying stagnant.
On the flip side, there are the people who take too many rest days. It is very common in many gyms to see athletes go all in for one or two days and then don’t show up again for over a week. This is because of the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Typically DOMS sets in 72 hours after an extreme workout. An athlete and a coach must understand the difference between muscle soreness and muscle injury. Obviously if you are injured, stay home, rest up, listen to your doctor. But if you are just sore the best thing for muscle soreness is to work through it. In the majority of the occasions, if you properly warm up, you can get rid of the muscle soreness before the workout begins. The longer you rest, to get rid of the soreness, the harder it will be to come back into the gym. You have to understand that muscle soreness is normal. This soreness is caused by micro tears in the muscle tissue (not the fallacy of lactate acid build up) and as your body repairs it will make you stronger. If you chose to sit out because you are sore, you are minimizing the benefits of the workout the day prior. It is important to decipher the difference between soreness and injury and it is up to you and the coach to relay the effects of the day prior workout. A good coach will be able to modify any workout to allow you to give you the benefit of the workout without over using any muscle group. It is important to understand that you can work through muscle soreness, a proper warm up can alleviate any issues that soreness brings up. Injury should keep you home, soreness should not!
Rest days are crucial for athletic gains. It is important to understand the difference between muscle soreness and injuries. No one likes to be sore. It is not a great feeling. Soreness is a sign that you body is reacting to a new stimulus. Soreness is a normal part of the process. Injuries are not. If you are not resting you over train and over training leads to serious injuries. Know the difference between the two. Utilizing a proper warm up and mobility soreness can be minimized. Don’t let your ego get the best of you, don’t forget your rest days!