The Importance of Recovery and Rest Days: Enhancing Performance through Rest

Introduction: The Role of Rest Days in Fitness

We all have periods where we feel more motivated and times when we feel MUCH less so. And the times we manage to find ourselves in a period of consistent motivation, we may find ourselves getting carried away. You want to make the most of your rhythm; of how well you’re performing, of how great you’ve been feeling, of the results you’ve been seeing. But training too much and resting too little is a slippery slope and often leads to injury and burnout, which can bring your training to a halt for days, months or, in some cases, years!

Although the main factor in your progression towards your fitness goals lies in your training itself, rest is close behind. Your muscles need time to repair microscopic damage and restore key nutrients. Without this, your muscles don’t have time to actually adapt to the stress you’re putting on them, and so your gains suffer. 

Signs of Overtraining: Recognising the Need for Rest Days

In some cases, our bodies can tell us if something isn’t quite right, and this is generally the case if you’ve been overtraining. Physically, you might notice that your performance or progress in the gym has plateaued, or you might even start doing worse. You might find that you are struggling more than normal and getting out of breath a lot earlier during a set or period of exercise. You might be sweating more, feel more sore than normal and feel less fresh and ready for the session, even if your sleep and nutrition has stayed the same. Injuries and ‘twinges’ could start becoming more common too like tendonitis, sprains and sore joints.

Overtraining can also cause mental symptoms too; in lower mood and energy, decreased motivation and enthusiasm for training but potentially also other activities too, as well as affected sleep and general cognitive function like memory and focus day to day. So it can affect you in so many ways other than getting in the way of your progress, which, in itself, is not ideal. And given that there are soooo many other symptoms that can affect you if you’ve been overdoing it, it might be time to rethink your training : rest ratio.

The Science Behind Rest and Recovery

You might have experienced the lovely (yes I’m one of those weirdos who likes the pain) DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness. This soreness will be due to inflammation in your muscles and/or microscopic tears. Both of these are nothing to worry about, provided you give your muscles adequate rest. In a way it’s your body telling you that you pushed yourself hard enough and now it is going to adapt, so that next time, you can push it even more.

You generally get more DOMS if you’re new to a form of movement, are starting a new programme, or are doing a lot of slow, heavily loaded eccentric movements (lengthening muscles under tension). So if your DOMS start to ease off mid-programme and you aren’t feeling them as much any more, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough, and it doesn’t mean that you can skip your rest days. A lack of DOMS doesn’t mean your body is fine and doesn’t still need rest! During periods of rest, your muscles can heal any tears and come back stronger, your body can reduce the inflammation in your muscles, and refuel stores of nutrients like glycogen, needed during exercise. If you are running on low stores, you are more susceptible to injury, as well as generally lower performance.

The Importance of Sleep in the Recovery Process

If you’re currently training regularly, you might have noticed how awful your body feels after a poor night’s sleep versus a full night’s sleep. Personally, I notice a dramatic difference. My body feels like it hasn’t healed properly, I feel unusually sore and I definitely don’t feel fresh and as ready as usual for my next session. This is because the majority of healing happens overnight, and, as we have discussed, your body needs to heal between sessions. Or at least make a good start.

This means that when you aren’t getting a full 7-9 hours sleep each night, it delays muscle recovery, which reduces the benefits you were hoping to achieve from your session, whether that be strength, endurance, or muscle growth. And if you’re simply training for the mental health benefits, it can mean your performance in the gym decreases and your risk of injury increases – both of which can set you back here.

Strategies for Optimal Recovery

As well as planning in some active rest days, there are a few things you can implement to help the process along. Putting in some extra work can mean you might be able to add another training day into your week, or simply feel less sore after sessions. Firstly, good nutrition and hydration are a must, which we will discuss in the next section.

Other than this, the aim is to relax and release tension in our muscles, increase blood flow, decrease inflammation and ultimately speed up healing time. Stretching and massage are both great ways of relieving tension and relaxing your muscles, although recent research tends to lean more towards sports massage as the better option for recovery. This is mainly due to the increase in blood flow stimulated by this practice. You can also use foam rollers as an alternative in between the odd sports massage, to save some money.

In addition to this, the use of heat and ice are also proven to aid recovery. Whether you have access to an actual ice bath, a cold lake or simply a cool shower or bath, temperatures of 10°C to 15°C for around 15 minutes can be extremely helpful in reducing inflammation, muscle soreness, and improving circulation, not to mention the numerous other mental and physical health benefits too! Once initial soreness has died down, heat can then be helpful in further relaxing muscles and nervous system, increase circulation, and improve sleep quality. This could be in the bath or with hot water bottles. So cycling both heat and ice therapies into your recovery can be very beneficial. And finally, an early night is always a good shout too, to give yourself the best chance for a good, full night’s sleep of healing and recovery.

Nutrition and Hydration: Fuelling Recovery

Carbohydrates and Protein

Making sure you’ve got your nutrition and hydration right is essential. This is because both are needed for you to be able to perform well in sessions, and then to heal and refuel in time for the next. During exercise, your carbohydrate stores (your primary energy source) in your muscles are depleted. Therefore, it’s necessary to consume carbohydrate-rich foods post-workout, ideally within the first 2 hours. Without replenishing what you’ve lost, you will reach fatigue much faster during your next session, and so your performance decreases, but also your risk of injury increases. Protein is also a must have post-workout as it’s the main nutrient our body needs for repairing and growing our muscles, so try to get in a good 40-50g post workout, ideally giving you the whole range of amino acids. If you’re not sure what foods contain complete proteins, give this blog a read.

Hydration

Keeping yourself hydrated throughout the day, even when not training is also going to be key in keeping your performance optimal too. Water is actually needed to release energy in the body for your muscles to use, along with many other vital functions – and if your other bodily functions are struggling, your workouts become more difficult too. You should make sure your body is already well hydrated prior to even starting exercise, and then you only need to sip water during your sessions, so as to not have it sloshing around in your stomach. You can then have more of a glug afterwards to replenish as needed. The biggest difference during your session will be down to how well hydrated you are before you even start.

Nutrients

To continue on with my point about making sure all other bodily functions are stress-free, you should make sure you’re getting all essential micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – that your body needs. These are found in carbohydrates, protein and fats but also in fruits and veggies. So having a well-rounded diet containing all of the above is what’s required. Whole grain carbohydrates, as unprocessed and natural as possible, will contain the most vital nutrients, unsaturated healthy fats such as those coming from nuts and seeds are ideal, and eating a variety of colours in fruit and veg means you should be getting a good mix of different micronutrients to support your body as a whole, and therefore, your performance while training. If you want to read more on how to fuel your body optimally for exercise, check out my Ultimate Nutrition in Fitness guide.

Types of Recovery: Active vs. Passive Rest Days

When you think of a rest day, you might picture yourself lazing on the sofa watching tv, scrolling through social media, with very little movement throughout the day. After all, you’re resting. This is what I’d call a passive rest day. And while it will do your muscle and nervous system some good, it isn’t as effective as a day of active rest. Yes, you won’t be going training, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid movement. Moving at a low intensity will increase the blood flow to your muscles to deliver vital nutrients needed for healing faster than  not moving at all.

Perfect examples are walking outdoors, swimming, yoga, or using equipment like bikes, rowers or ellipticals at a gym. You should maintain a steady pace whereby you can still hold a conversation without getting out of breath. You can also use your active rest days to do some corrective work at home or at a gym, stretching out overactive muscles using your bodyweight or a foam roller, and activating underactive ones, perhaps with resistance bands or light dumbbells. So any days that you aren’t training at a high intensity, you should use for active rest. Done properly, these should help your body recover fully, reduce soreness and feel fresh and ready for your next session. If they don’t, you might still be doing too much!

Conclusion: Embracing Rest as a Vital Component of Peak Performance

Whether you’re already training and wanted to explore how better recovery methods could improve your performance, or whether you’re about to start making fitness a more regular part of your routine, hopefully you’ve found some of these tips useful. Allowing your body to heal and recover properly is essential to support your most successful, injury-free performance during sessions. And if you’re looking for an extra hand with your strength training performance, and are local to Manchester, give me a shout!

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Picture of Ray Hickford

Ray Hickford

Hi, I’m Ray, a health and wellbeing professional in Manchester working with clients through training and nutrition programmes to help them feel more confident, strong and happy both in and outside of the gym.
As a Qualified Personal Trainer and Level 4 RSPH Nutrition Advisor, I am constantly learning myself - from my clients, from other industry experts and sometimes myself! And sometimes I write some of this down for ya.

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