Rest and Recovery – Why. When. How.

Exercise stresses your body. It places your bones under considerable force, it causes micro tears in your muscles, it makes your heart beat up to three times faster than normal, it stretches your ligaments and tendons, it makes you gasp for air. When you think of it like that, it’s not surprising that your body needs an opportunity to rest and recover.

Why do I need recovery?


Athletes know how important recovery is when it comes to optimising their physical performance. They dedicate up to 3 sessions each week to recovery. You might not be training at the same intensity as an athlete, but recovery is just as important for the general population.

Following a workout (particularly an intense one) is when your body actually has an opportunity to adapt and improve itself. Let’s imagine what your brain would be thinking post-workout: “Wow, that was a tough session and I really had to push my body hard. I don’t like having to stress my body that much, it feels uncomfortable. Only way to prevent feeling like that again is to make my muscles stronger and improve my cardiorespiratory fitness. Better improve those things now while I’m just lying on the couch so I’m ready for the next session” – what a clever brain you have! Our bodies can’t get stronger or fitter whilst we are exercising; they need some time off to do that.

Recovery is good for you because:

  • It gives your body an opportunity to repair itself following any stresses caused by exercise
  • When your body repairs itself, it also improves and strengthens itself – that’s how we get fitter
  • It decreases your risk of injury
  • It lets you have a mental break from exercise
  • It gives you a chance to have a light training session or a good stretch

So when should I recover?


How much recovery your body needs is dependent on what sort of exercise you are doing and at what intensity, as well as how fit you are.

When it comes to resistance training (lifting free weights, body weight exercises, BodyPump class etc) a great guide is to have 48 hours break before training the same muscle group again. So if you trained your whole body on Monday morning, you wouldn’t want to train it again until Wednesday morning. Some people use split programs to allow them to train on consecutive days; in this instance you might train upper body on Monday, lower body on Tuesday and then upper body again on Wednesday, lower body on Thursday. This split program allows you to exercise 4 days in a row, whilst still providing adequate recovery for each muscle group. If you’re training at high intensity, you will likely require at least 72 hours break.

We still require recovery from cardiovascular exercise (running, cycling, aerobics etc), however we are often able to do these activities on consecutive days. As a guide, you might like to train three days on, one day off.

Those who are new to exercise will need more recovery than those who have been exercising for a long time. If you are just getting started, aim to exercise every second day (if you have any medical conditions, every third day might even be appropriate). As you gradually increase the frequency and intensity of your exercise, be aware of how your body is responding to determine if you need more recovery or if you’re ok to continue progressing.

I would advise that EVERYONE needs at least one day per week completely exercise free.

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How do I know if I need more recovery?


Too much exercise can leave your body feeling worse for wear. Be aware of these signs:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Abnormal muscle soreness, aches and injuries
  • Decrease in fitness and training performance
  • Decreased appetite
  • Depression
  • Increased heart rate at rest (~5bpm)

Ok, so how do I recover?


For some people, recovery is nothing more than just having a day without any exercise. As I said above, I recommend that EVERYONE takes at least one day a week off. For those who are quite fit, they might choose to include another 1 or 2 recovery days in their program in the form of a lighter training session, such as a walk or stretching class. Athletes will often participate in water-based (ocean or pool) exercise the day after a big game or race (believed to improve circulation, keeps the body moving without stressing the systems).

What about longer recovery breaks?


In addition to considering weekly recovery sessions, it’s also important to schedule longer recovery breaks. For most people, one week every three months is sufficient. You might like to plan this to fall at a time when you’ve just finished a fun run or when you’re on holidays. As with individual recovery days, this longer break may compromise light training sessions or no exercise whatsoever. Don’t be afraid to take long breaks; although studies have shown that aerobic fitness can decrease after just 1-2 weeks off, it only takes 1-2 sessions to regain. Further, taking a break will often mean that when you start exercising again, you’ll be able to take your fitness to another level. Moving away from the physical side of it, taking a rest from exercise is also important for our minds – sometimes we just need a break and that’s perfectly ok.

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