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The Importance of Rest Days

I LOVE the gym. The gym is a place where you can constantly set and achieve goals, where there is always something new to learn, and where you can push beyond the comfort of your daily routines. Not to mention the rush: that mood-boosting, energy-releasing “high” after a workout. For those of us keen to keep running, jumping, and lifting there is an element sometimes overlooked when planning our training schedules: rest!

Exercise, especially intense exercise, is a strain on the body. Now don’t get me wrong, this type of strain is good for us. By placing our bodies under purposeful and controlled stress, we also create the needed stimulus for adaptation. Be it weight loss or muscle gain, strength gains or endurance building, we need to keep challenging ourselves in order to see progress. But we are human. It can often be our nature to think that more of a good thing must be better. When it comes to training though, this can be a detrimental mindset. Working out without proper rest can lead to plateaus at best and at worst, injuries and feelings of demotivation.

There is actually a name for logging too much time in the gym: it’s called Overtraining Syndrome or OTS. In particular, this syndrome refers to the damage done to your central nervous system (CNS) when you train too hard too often without enough down time. Your CNS is responsible for myriad bodily functions – you could liken it to the battery powering the engine that is your body. Imagine trying to operate a vehicle without a battery. You already know it won’t run so you wouldn’t even try.

In addition to OTS, overtraining can also include simple muscular overuse. For example, if you spend every weekend skiing and then hit leg day hard at the gym every Monday, you may be creating a recipe for muscular overtraining in your legs. In this situation, your muscles no longer have enough time to recover and adapt, which negatively impacts your muscular development in terms of both strength and size. This type of overtraining can be easily avoided by simply being mindful with how you schedule your activities.

Muscular overtraining is straightforward to identify: when your muscles feel sore for above average lengths of times (more than 3-4 days), when your strength gains plateau consistently, and when you feel your ability to generate power is consistently lessened. These are physical signs you can watch for and to which you can quickly respond to prevent further injury. But what about OTS, or when OTS and muscular overtraining combine? What should you watch for as signs and symptoms?

“Imagine trying to operate a vehicle without a battery. You already know it won’t run so you wouldn’t even try.”

Take a look at the following list:
  • Feeling tired, drained, generally lacking energy.
  • Ongoing aches and pains.
  • Sudden drop in performance/ability.
  • Sudden loss of intensity in workouts.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Increased minor illness. (cold, flu, etc.)
  • Moodiness and/or irritability.
  • Lack of enthusiasm for training.
  • Increase in injuries.
  • Headaches.
  • Depression.

While one of these symptoms alone might not be attributed to overtraining, be mindful if you begin to feel multiples of these symptoms piling up. Ideally, the best thing to do is avoid overtraining in the first place. While training is the stimulus for bodily adaptation, remember those adaptations don’t all necessarily occur while you’re working out (hence why more isn’t always better). When it comes to resistance training, your muscles experience the stress of working out, but actually gain strength through the repairing process when you’re not in the gym. Much of this repair occurs during sleep, which is another critical factor in keeping overtraining at bay.

In fact, there are a few habits you can start building now to prevent overtraining from becoming a problem down the road. Aim for eight hours of sleep a night. Drink plenty of water. Cycle your training with muscle groups in mind and avoid training the same group two days in a row. Ensure that you take one to two days of rest each week (more if you’re experiencing multiple symptoms of overtraining at the same time). If you’re worried you might be overtraining already, reduce your workout intensity (how hard you push), and/or your workout volume (how much you train and the weight you lift). Additional therapies can also be excellent sources of restoration and recuperation: massage, infrared sauna, float therapy, and cryotherapy are a few activities that will relax your CNS and soothe tired muscles.

If you’re ever on the fence about training and uncertain whether or not you’re really up for it, try this: establish your resting heart rate. To do this, take your pulse first thing in the morning before you get up for three mornings in a row. Count the number of beats in ten seconds and multiply this by 6 to get your beats per minute (BPM). Record your average BPM for three mornings to establish your resting heart rate. The next time you wake up and are unsure whether or not you should train, check your heart rate. If it’s much higher than your established resting heart rate, that’s a sign you should take the day off.

Now that you can spot the signs, and know how to prevent over training altogether, you can hit the gym as hard as possible and make the most of your workouts while enjoying rest days guilt free. It’s the work hard, play hard philosophy at it’s best, so embrace it!

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