Rest is important for the body to recover, but what does recovery actually mean and how often and how much is necessary?

The purpose of training is to overload the body in order to stimulate improvements in muscular strength and endurance. However, continuing to load the body without adequate rest will lead to overtraining and may result in a possible injury and a drop in training quality. The improvements you gain when you train actually occur during recovery – when the body is repairing, rebuilding and strengthening. Recovery replenishes energy stores and repairs damaged tissue. Without this time, the body will continue to breakdown and impact your following training sessions.

The period of time we need between sessions is highly individual and depends on your current training load, including the level of intensity of the training sessions, and the frequency of those higher-intensity training sessions on a weekly and monthly basis. For example, if your exercise is of a lower intensity and duration such as a short aerobic ride (under 70% of maximum heart rate) then a complete rest day is probably not necessary. While if your training session was of high intensity (such as a time trial, intervals or twice the duration of a normal session), then a recovery/rest day is advised.

Recovery is required when the body is unable to adapt to the training load due to a sudden increase in load. An increase in training load of more than 10% in duration or intensity per session and/or week will result in the need to carry out a greater level of recovery than normal.

Indications of fatigue worth monitoring to identify when a greater amount of recovery is required include:

  • Muscle soreness – Mild muscle soreness is to be expected after a training session and generally speaking you are not ready to return to a hard training session until your muscle soreness (DOMS) has settled which may take 3-4 days
  • When 24hrs between sessions is not enough – after a heavy training day (e.g. long run on the weekend or increase in weight at the gym) then a full rest day (or even more) is most likely required to recover appropriately prior to returning to your next quality session
  • Poor quality back-to-back training sessions – if consistently poor training sessions occur then the body clearly hasn’t recovered appropriately and recovery is needed for at least a few days
  • Elevated heart rate – If your resting heart rate is elevated then it’s a great indication that the body requires rest
  • General fatigue and loss of appetite – feeling constantly tired, drained, a loss of appetite, or lacking energy and motivation are all signs of increased fatigue and the need to rest up
  • Poor sleep – Difficulties falling asleep or waking frequently throughout the night is a sign that the body is over-trained, which alters the nervous system responsible for relaxing the body and therefore disrupts the natural sleep rhythm

If any of the above are identified, then rest and recovery is required. Below are a few methods to speed up the process.

  • Forms of recovery:
    • Sleep – make sure you’re getting adequate sleep as this is the number one way to recover!
    • Rest day – avoiding further loading for physical and psychological recovery.
    • Active-Recovery – low intensity, reduced weight bearing exercise of a shorter duration to what you normally undertake; such as walking, cycling, swimming, yoga or hydrotherapy. Active-recovery is arguably more beneficial than rest.
    • Nutrition – ensure you consume appropriate macronutrients (carbs, protein and fats), greens and other anti-inflammatory foods, as well as minimising inflammatory substances such as alcohol, sugar and processed meats.
    • Massage & foam rolling – it is believed that massage helps with increasing the rate of blood and lymph flow.

In summary, rest and recovery is critical for meeting your performance goals. You need to listen to your body to help determine when to rest and then choose a form of recovery that suits you.