When you’re training towards a sporting goal, whether that’s a marathon run, a long-distance triathlon, cycling sportive or making gains in the gym, taking time off can be harder than it sounds.
Training makes you feel good, it blows away the mental cobwebs after a hard day in the office and, let’s face it, it’s hard not to compare yourself to others on Strava or Instagram who might be getting in the reps while you’re putting your feet up.
Taking time off can leave you feeling a teensy bit guilty that you’re neglecting your training, and there’s always that nagging doubt that squeezing in just one more workout could be the difference between a PB and an also-ran.
But if you’re a rest-day shirker though, stop right there! There’s a reason everyone – yes, even pro athletes – schedule quality rest into their training schedule.
Downtime gives your body the chance to repair and grow stronger so you can perform at your best. It allows your mind to focus, boosts motivation, and it reduces your chance of injury from overuse, too.
In short, not taking rest days could do your training more harm than good and you may even set yourself up for a few months on the injury bench.
From the benefits of rest days and how many you should be taking, to how you should be fuelling to maximise recovery, here’s everything you need to know about the art of easing off.
Benefits of rest days which might surprise you
1. Rest days give your muscles chance to grow
When you train, whether that’s pounding the miles on the road, interval training or lifting weights in the gym, you create microscopic tears in your muscles. It’s these tears that cause DOMS after a particularly intense workout or new training session.
As your body repairs these tears, your muscles grow stronger so they’re able to perform the same workout with less effort next time.
It’s not a case of working out more to see more benefits though. Muscles need time and rest to reboot, rebuild and strengthen.
How much time they need depends on a number of factors including genetics, age, current fitness level, how intensely and for how long you’re working out. As a rule of thumb though, you should have a minimum of one rest day per week and throw in some easier workouts alongside the tougher sessions.
2. Rest days reduce the chance of injury
You know those microscopic tears we were talking about? If you don’t give them time to repair they can become muscles sprains, which means a lot more days with your feet up than you were planning.
A lack of rest can also cause tendon injuries such as tendinitis – inflammation caused by overuse.
That’s why bodybuilders often alternate the muscle groups they use, spending time working on arms the day after leg day to ensure their legs are fully recovered before they go hard again.
Rest days are important for giving your bones a break, too. This is particularly pertinent for runners whose legs absorb a lot of shock. Like muscles, bones grow stronger with exercise as the impact of running stresses the bone tissue. And, just like muscles, bones need time to strengthen and remodel.
Running without periods of rest could also be a fast ticket to a stress fracture – a fracture caused by repeated stress – as your bones don’t have the time they need to fully repair.
3. Rest days help you swerve overtraining syndrome
Overtraining syndrome (OTS) may sound like something that affects pro athletes but it’s a very real issue among amateurs, too.
Overtraining syndrome is when your body and mind don’t have time to recover and rest, resulting in mental and physical burnout.
Symptoms vary but you’ll usually find your performance suffers and workouts you’ve done many times before seem much harder. You’ll feel constantly fatigued but may struggle to sleep. OTS can also result in aching muscles and reduced range of motion – so you’re constantly running with sore legs, hormone imbalances, loss of appetite, anaemia, and heart arrhythmia.
Wearing a heart rate monitor can be a good way to spot potential OTS. If your resting heart rate is 5-10 beats higher than usual over a couple of days or more, it’s usually a sign you need more rest or you risk overtraining. Newer training watches also offer more detailed recovery insights to help you manage your training – and rest – intelligently.
4. Rest days can keep you motivated
Most of us train because it’s something we enjoy. We might not say that straight after the sixth hill rep on tough training days but we wouldn’t be doing it if ultimately it wasn’t fun right?
If you don’t take rest days though, you can strip out the fun making working out seem like a chore.
You’ll struggle to focus, take a dip in motivation and may lose your mojo altogether. How to spot when you’re in danger of hammering your motivation? It’s the opposite of that feeling you get during a taper. Instead of an excitement and hunger to train, you’ll feel burdened by it.
5. Rest days help you sleep
Sleep is vitally important when you’re training hard. During shuteye the body releases hormones to help your muscles repair and grow. There are three main stages of sleep, light sleep, non-REM deep sleep and REM sleep.
During non-REM deep sleep, blood flow to your muscles increases and this is when they grow and repair.
In REM sleep – the bit when you have vivid dreams, even though you might not remember them – your muscles relax, which can help reduce tension and aid with DOMS. In the REM stage your brain also processes information from the day and stores it in your long-term memory.
But training too hard can cause your sleep patterns to go nuts, meaning you miss out on all the sleep-induced benefits. You might feel dog-tired but struggle to nod off or wake numerous times in the night. This is because exercising can increase your body’s production of stress hormones, which leaves you feeling wired and makes it much harder to wind down.
Taking a couple of rest days should help get you back on the slumber track.
6. Rest days can support your immune system
No one wants all that hard training derailed by a nasty cold or virus so if you want to stay healthy, make sure you take a break.
Studies have shown that moderate exercise reduces the risk of colds and flu. But bouts of long, hard exercise and periods of intense training, make you more likely to fall foul to upper respiratory tract infections. Which explains why many of us fall ill after a marathon or endurance event.
This is partly caused by increased levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which suppress white blood cell functions, leaving you open to infection.
Rest days, easier workouts and adaptation weeks are all important parts of a training plan and could help keep the bugs at bay.
How many rest days per week do I need?
There’s no magic formula to calculate the number of rest days each individual needs as it’s affected by so many things including fitness, genetics, intensity of workouts and also how stressful your everyday life is.
Listening to your body and monitoring tiredness and soreness should help you work out what’s right for you.
As a general rule though, those who are newer to exercise should take two or three rest days a week while more experienced athletes may be fine with one.
Ultra-endurance cyclist James Mark Hayden says he always has at least one rest day off the bike and one easy day per week but if he hasn’t slept well or feels tired he’ll give himself longer to recover (read all his 10 tips for cycling recovery here).
What should I do on rest days?
Rest doesn’t have to mean sofa, boxset and a takeaway. Although that does sound pretty good. Here are some ways to approach rest to make the most of your down time.
• On active rest days
If you’re feeling good, you can take part in some light activity, without stressing your body. A walk with friends, a gentle swim, some restorative yoga (make sure it’s a recovery class or you could find yourself working much harder than you imagined) or an easy spin on the bike could be good active recovery day workout ideas.
Or you could try foam rolling, increasing blood flow to muscle tissue to aid recovery.
• On inactive rest days
If you’re in the middle of a tough training cycle it can be hard to find time to catch up with friends, read that book you’ve had by the bedside, get to the cinema or practice your baking/stamp collecting/watercolour hobby. Schedule a nice relaxing activity for your rest day and give your brain a treat as well as your body.
How should I fuel on rest days?
Intense workouts can suppress your appetite so you may find you feel hungrier on rest days even though you’re not training. Try and resist the urge to reach for the junk food though.
Aim for a 3:1 carb to protein ratio. Carbohydrate to top up your glycogen stores and protein to help your muscles grow and recover. You should be eating a good mix of real food to ensure you get all those vital vitamins and minerals as well.
If hunger hits try snacking on something like the Veloforte Forza bar, which contains the perfect 3:1 balance and contains fennel for its anti-inflammatory properties.You might also find our articles What to eat after a run to fuel your recovery and Post-workout recovery with vegan protein done right, useful.