If you are exercising regularly and wondering why you just aren’t losing weight, improving in strength or just not improving your performance as expected, it may be because you aren’t allowing enough rest and recovery into your program.
Rest and recovery are not just “a nice break from your program”, but an essential part of your exercise regime that is planned and deliberate.
The reasons are 2 fold:
Firstly, growth in your muscles occurs when you rest, not when you exercise. Exercising, especially strength training, causes microtears in the muscles that your body needs to repair and adapt.
As a result, the adaptation makes you a little bit stronger than before so that you can cope with more load in the future. However, this process takes time, 48-72 hours, depending on the type of activity you do. Inadequate recovery time between exercise sessions (especially a lack of sleep) doesn’t allow this adaptation to occur, which means that you don’t improve or start to injury yourself, going backwards.
Therefore, the reason you rest is so that you can train more and get more out of the training sessions when you do training, ultimately better results.
In addition, rest allows you to replenish your glycogen stores (short term energy supply in your muscles and liver, utilised when you exercise).
This is depleted during exercise, especially during cardio exercise. Adequate nutrition and time (48 hours) allow these stores to be replenished and ready for your next training session. Again, the point is to improve your ability to train harder during your sessions and improve the results from your training in the long term.
Secondly, lack of rest and recovery throws your hormone levels out of balance. Training is a “stressor”, deliberately designed to load your muscles to force the need to adapt by releasing more growth hormone that stimulate growth. However, your body can’t tell between the stressors of training and the stressors of life, raising your natural cortisol levels.
Lack of “life stress management”, especially lack of good quality sleep leads to poor insulin sensitivity, reduced levels of a hormone associated with appetite suppression (leptin) and increased levels of a hormone associated with hunger (ghrelin). Essentially this means that you are likely to retain body fat, no matter how much you train and fail to adapt to training as expected (The opposite to what you are trying to achieve).
Your goal for your training program should be to achieve great consistency of specific and effective training by minimising life stressors and maximising your training load, while remaining in a state that allows for steady, positive adaptation. The only way to achieve this is through adequate rest, recovery and good quality nutritional to support your training.
How do you know that you are over training and under recovering?
The most obvious signs that you are not giving yourself enough time for rest and recovery is that you are retaining body fat despite training and not improving your performance. However, there are other, important signs to look out for:
- Poor quality, broken sleep – You may feel tired during the day, but find that you are wide awake at night time, struggling to sleep. In addition, you may have other symptoms, such as night sweats.
- Poor performance during training or competition – Training has a high perceived effort and you are not able to achieve good intensity, power and performance, despite hard training.
- Your body is sore and you are starting to injure yourself – prolonged periods of muscle soreness after training and overuse injuries creeping in are a strong sign of overtraining and an imbalance in your choice of training. When your muscles and tendons are failing to adapt from the microtrauma of training and the degree of breakdown is greater than the degree of repair, this could mean a hard stop to your training from an injury you may not control.
- You are more frequently ill and are taking longer to recover from sickness – This is a strong sign that your immune system is compromised (due to overtraining and raised cortisone levels). You may find other signs, such as a change in appetite (either greater or lower) or more serious other blood markers, such as reduced iron levels, low Vitamin D and elevated levels of creatine kinase (an indication of muscle breakdown)
- Your mindset may just not feel right – When you lose your ambition to train, feel a lack of fulfilment from training or moving towards your goals or have a feeling of sorrow or depression, your mind is telling you are burnt out and need adequate rest and recovery.
What does a good recovery program look like?
Just like good training, good recovery should be planned into your exercise routine. Your main training sessions should be planned first, then the rest and recovery should be planned around you achieving your best during these sessions
• Main training sessions – Strength training 2- 3 times a week
This is where you do most of the work and progressively build your strength and improve your performance. These sessions are well structured to improve your strength in your weak areas and in the areas required for performance.
It is extremely important that your training during these sessions is progressively increased over time to follow your adaptation and improvement. The key to success is consistent, systematic, progressive overload and improvement. It is normal to feel fatigued after these sessions, because this is where the work is done.
If planning a week, (with 3 sessions a week) these sessions may be done on:
o Monday, Wednesday and Friday or
o Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday
To allow adequate recovery time for growth and repair to occur.
• Main cardiovascular training – 2-3 a week – On the same day as main strength training
If you are training for cardio performance, such as for triathlon, marathon running or sports such as netball and football, your main cardio training days should be on your strength training days.
It takes about 3-4 hours to recover from this form of cardio training, whilst for strength training, ideally 48 hours is required. So, following your cardio training with strength training allows your best results and a rest day the day after.
Just like strength training, this needs to be a tough session to yield results. This does not mean a gentle run, but interval training, speed work or potentially sprint work to improve your performance. You need to push yourself to achieve improvement and adaptation, otherwise your results will plateau.
A good coach will pick the right workouts for you to achieve these outcomes, but not go over the edge that you cause injury.
However, both of these types of workouts require recovery time afterwards, to allow your body to repair AND for you to be at your best the next time you train.
• Rest day afterwards – The day after your harder workout days
The purpose of these days is to allow the body to recover and allow some blood to move around, encouraging the breakdown of an exercise metabolite, creatine kinase.
Exercise on these days should be:
o No more than 1 hour (ideally under 40 minutes)
o Be kept at a conversational pace only.
These are great days to take a walk with your partner or a gentle ride. Do not over do it on these days, at it will compromise your recovery and your performance on your heavier training days.
• Other light training days – The day before your first heavier training day of the week OR if you are training 2 x a week, the day after your recovery day
These are also lighter sessions, however, the focus of these sessions is development of skills, technique and other technical aspects of your sport. Take advantage of these days to develop your technical skills, but leave your performance development to your specific training days.
Other support activities for recovery:
• Proper sleep – A regular 7 hours per night
Out of all the recovery activities that you do this is the most important. This is the best way to minimise your “non-training stress” and lower your cortisol levels. The most amount of repair occurs during this time and if sleep is compromised, so will your performance.
This may mean that you have to give up other social activities or say NO to extra tasks to ensure you get adequate, good quality sleep as part of your overall, training routine.
According to Matt Dixon, Triathlete coach, “It is the aim of the athlete to minimise variables associated with non-training stress in order to optimise adaptation for every unit of training stress applied. An athlete usually seeks to limit or eliminate “normal” work schedules, prioritise sleep and keep life as simple as possible
• Proper Nutrition – Proper fuel during exercise and good nutritious food for your body to grow
Fueling is food (energy) during your workout. Underfueling during exercise drops your performance and compromises results.
You are NOT losing more calories by NOT eating before exercise, but will compromise the repair and grow process. Some carbohydrate before you exercise, good quality protein and water for hydration are all essential for the best results from exercise.
Following up your workout with good quality protein within 30 minutes of your session, followed by a full good quality meal containing protein, unrefined carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables and good quality fats within 2 hours of your workout is your best chance to take full advantage of your workout and maximise your gains.
Dixon, M (2014) Well-Built Triathlete: Training potential into performance.
In addition, click on the link to listen to Matt Dixon’s podcast on The Physical Performance Show:
Hamilton A (2022) The importance of recovery and various recovery strategies
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