We were having this conversation recently at a session. and it’s important so I figured I’d share it. The question is, when should I take a rest day. There’s a few members of the group who are really into their training. They work out with me 4 or 5 times a week. And run a few times a week too. And that is excellent.
But, should you have a rest day? How many? And what exactly constitutes a rest day?
Let’s start with me as an example. I train 4 to 5 times per week depending on the schedule. So that’s at least two days off per week. In these off days I’ll stretch, foam roll, maybe get a massage. I might go for a walk or cycle with the kids. That’s it. I’m not tempted to go for a jog, or do some core, or some extra press ups. It’s my rest day. I rest.
So the short answer is yes, you should definitely take at least one rest day a week. You might need 2, depending on what else you’re doing. Intense sessions including weights or resistance or sprinting would require more than 1 rest day a week.
But to fully understand the reason rest days are important, we need to track back to the principle of training.
How training works
In a nutshell, training works through a system of progressive overload, i.e. you load the system more than you normally would with the aim of causing it “damage”. This damage is in the form of microscopic tears in the muscles. Depending on how bad the tears are, you will feel the DOMs the next day or the day after that. (But note the absence on DOMs doesn’t imply that there are no tears, just that you can handle the overload better.)
Recovery time is important because it is then when the body adapts to the stress from the new exercises. It is during the recovery period that your body repairs the damaged tissues. This principle is called super compensation. As muscles are broken down and the body build them back stronger as a result.
But for it to actually do the “growing stronger” part, there needs to be sufficient rest and nutrition in place. (Interestingly, a major part of this recovery and growth happens during sleep, as confirmed by studies which have shown growth hormone to spike dramatically during deep sleep but that’s another story.)
How to know if you’re recovered?
Sometimes there may be confusion between replenished energy and recovery. So you might feel OK after training and a good meal. You might wake up fully rested and think, I’m ready to go again. But replenished energy isn’t the same as being recovered i.e. your muscle tissues and ligaments might not have completed the repair, recovery and rebuild.
One way of tracking recovery is to monitor your resting HR. Most watches now track this for you. So if you notice that it is higher than normal (4-7 beats per minute is typical) then this could be an indication that you’re not fully recovered. Of course it’s not precise. Because an increase could be due to lots of things: bad nights sleep, period, having or about to catch a cold, stress, etc. But it’s a way to potentially track it, ceteris paribus as we used to say in Economics. That is, everything else remaining equal.
One other point: as you know I never train with the group. I never do more than 2-3 reps of any exercise. And I know it’s a point of piss-take. But there is a very valid reason: if it’s not on my schedule, it’s not required. Doing it would only tired me, hinder my recovery. Effectively it’s junk training. So don’t train just for training’s sake.
Train because you have a specific goal or objective.