Way back in the day, when I first started doing intentional exercise (not just playing sports), it was always on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Why? I have no idea. Because that’s how you do it. Then I learned about rest days. While I understand the concept, forget about it; rest days are for slackers. What we are talking about today are recovery days!
No Rest Days!
That’s right—I said it. And here’s why. When people take “rest days,” they usually sit around all day, moving as little as possible. Oftentimes it turns into a “cheat day” full of potato chips, chili fries, and ice cream. Which totally defeats the purpose. The whole reason for taking a day off from your training is to allow your body to recover from the beating you have been putting it through so that it can rebuild stronger than it was. Sitting idly and stuffing your face with crap does not support this goal.
There is the other extreme, of course, aka “active rest.” While well-intentioned, running a 5k is not recovery. It’s a workout. Low weight, high reps is also a workout. Stop trying to justify it. If you are adding fatigue to your body, it is not recovery. As hard as it can be to pound into some people’s heads, I’ll say it again: MORE IS NOT BETTER. BETTER IS BETTER.
Recovery Days Are for Recovering
When planning your recovery day, it helps to consider what is going on in your body. Think of your training as causing all kinds of tiny little injuries throughout your body. To heal these injuries, your body goes through a process of inflammation and repair. Obviously, we want to do things that support this process and prepare us for the next training session. This means reducing inflammation and promoting healing.
The first way to do this is with your fuel. Your body needs the building materials to fix and improve where you have been causing damage. I think a lot of people find it easier to eat well on days when they are exercising and harder to eat the right foods on their days off. But you can’t change your car’s oil while you’re driving. It is when you are recovering that all of that high-quality fuel can get put to use. This means quality protein to rebuild tissues and plenty of veggies and fruits to refill glycogen stores and get antioxidants to help the healing process. My favorite anti-inflammatory foods are
- curry powder, and
I have at least two of these just about every day either as seasonings on my recovery meals or in a smoothie.
Another way to promote recovery is manually, and one way is with compression. You can get compression pants and shirts that are intended to reduce inflammation; you can use VooDoo Bands to squeeze heavily worked areas; or you can use hands and rollers to massage inflammation out. A second way is by moving. Increased blood flow helps remove damaged tissue and brings replacement materials to the damaged area. When I say “moving,” I’m talking about going for a walk, taking a relaxing bike ride, or MAYBE sitting on a rower for a few minutes… with the damper at 1. Whatever you are doing, you should be able to carry on a conversation without having to catch your breath. (For all you competitive/chatty people, this is not a challenge to see how much you can do while still carrying on a conversation.) Also, FYI, when your body is warm and the blood is flowing is a great time to work on mobility. So what I’m saying is warm up and mobilize.
Another trick to lower inflammation is cold showers. These have been shown to have a number of interesting effects on the body aside from reducing inflammation (like improved breathing and increased resilience against stress), so give it a shot. You can start with a warm shower and crank it to cold for the last minute or so, or suck it up and go cold the whole time.
Before moving on, let’s do a quick recap of our game plan for recovery days. We want to
(1) reduce inflammation and promote healing by using FOOD AS FUEL
(2) practice COMPRESSION and MASSAGE techniques, and
(3) GENTLY INCREASE BLOOD FLOW and MOBILIZE.
And give cold showers a try. It might replace your coffee.
When Do I Recover?
Let me start with a qualifier: If it has been less than a year since you started working out consistently, then just set your workout schedule and stick to it. Don’t worry about your CNS fatigue. If you don’t know what “CNS fatigue” means, then you don’t need to worry about it! The best thing you can do is show up.
If you have been at this for while and want to optimize the timing of your work and recovery days, I have a few strategies for you.
The first thing to do is to take a subjective inventory of your physical and mental state. You can do this in a journal, a workout log, or just as a daily mental exercise. Are you feeling tired? Did you sleep well? Are you sore? Are you cranky? Do you feel like you might get sick? Do you have any nagging aches or pains? Did your workout go like you thought it should? Is your performance weaker than usual? A consistent series of daily questions can, over time, paint you a picture of how you are handling your training volume and schedule. You probably want to include sleep duration and quality as well as diet in this inventory.
The next easy test is your resting heart rate. The easiest way to do this is to keep a timer next to your bed. As soon as you wake up, grab the timer. While still laying down in bed, count the number of heartbeats in one minute — this is your resting heart rate. If you do this daily, you will begin to see trends. I normally workout Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday. On Monday morning, my RHR is usually around 40-45 bpm. By Thursday morning, after three straight days of workouts, it is usually around 55-60 bpm. This tells me that my body is working overtime to recover. After a day of recovery, my RHR is usually back down, and I’m ready for another workout.
The third test is heart rate variability. You will need a heart rate monitor for this one. This measures the time between heartbeats to tell how fatigued your nervous system is. When you are well-rested, your heart beats only when it needs to. This means that the time between beats will vary from beat to beat. The higher the variability, the better rested you are. When you are fatigued, the system goes into a sort of autopilot and your heart beats at a more steady rhythm with lower variability in the rhythm. There are heart-rate monitors out there with apps and what-not for measuring this. I have never used them, so I won’t endorse any, but they are easy to find on Google if you are interested.
So should you work out every other day, or 2 days on 1 off, or 3 on 1 off? I don’t know — that depends on you and your body. The first step is realizing that recovery is as important as — if not more than — the workout itself. Once you have your recovery process down, start applying the fatigue tests. They might help confirm how tired you are feeling. On the other hand, they might tell you that it’s all in your head and that you should quit your belly-aching and lift something heavy! You’ll just have to try it to find out.