Why Athletes Need Rest Days: The Benefits of Optimal Recovery Periods

For most athletes, devoting time to rest and recovery is like balancing a checkbook…you know it’s important, but it’s hard to appreciate the value. 

Spending money is fun and exciting only if you have the money to spend, just like crushing a hard workout is fun and rewarding only if you have the energy reserves and capability.

Rest and recovery are underappreciated and underutilized training variables that are critical to optimal performance and injury prevention.  Let’s phrase that a slightly different way so you don’t miss the point…rest and recovery is essential, non-negotiable, and equally as valuable as training in achieving peak performance. 

Oh, and one more thing – just to hammer this point in a bit further – a lack of proper recovery will not only prevent you from reaching your goals, but can actually decrease performance.  Are you paying attention now?

Good. Let’s talk rest and recovery.

What is Recovery?

Stretching for recovery. The majority of research in athletic performance enhancement centers around how to optimize workout variables like frequency, intensity, and volume.  It’s only been in the last 20 years that science has turned some attention to rest and recovery.  Science has been so focused on training that it’s left a gap in universally defining rest and recovery.

Simply put, recovery is the return to a normal state of mind and body.  For athletes, recovery can be defined further as the time interval between training bouts that allows an athlete to meet or exceed previous performance. 

Physiologically, recovery involves:

  • Normalization of resting heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate
  • Restoration of energy stores such as blood glucose and muscle glycogen
  • Return to resting cell function

There is also a psychological component to recovery.  Hard workouts, interval training, and pushing the limits of your body takes a toll on your will power, mental energy, and focus.  You actually have to mentally work hard to push yourself past your current status.  Your brain has a natural governor that likes to keep things status quo; it’s easier on your body to keep your performance where it is, while it takes substantial mental fortitude to develop further.

Your brain needs a mental break from training to be able to push forward.  Many of the signs of overtraining relate to mental exhaustion and cognitive changes.  We’ll discuss the key signs to monitor for overtraining later.

So, now that we’ve defined recovery as “the time frame needed for your mind and body to restore function to repeat or exceed previous activity performance,” we can talk about the different types of recovery.

Types of Recovery: Immediate, Short-Term, and Training

Recovery can happen over fractions of a second, hours, or days depending on the intensity of activity and previous training levels.

Immediate Recovery

The most rapid form of recovery is immediate recovery, which happens during exercise itself.  This would include the swing phase of your leg during running, the upstroke of your leg during cycling, the flight phase after jumping, and time between repeated muscle contractions during bicep curls.

Short-Term Recovery

Short-term recovery involves the time gap between interval sets of a given exercise.  When athletes think about recovery, this is usually what comes to mind and is the most written about.  Running repeats on the track, one-minute rest breaks between squat sets, or supersets are all drills that involve short-term recovery.  This type of recovery is well studied and can be easily manipulated to enhance your workout and outcomes.

Training Recovery

The final type of recovery is commonly referred to as “training recovery” and happens to be the least studied and most underutilized form of recovery.  Training recovery refers to the recovery time between workout sessions or athletic competitions.  Examples of training recovery would be the gap between your Monday and Tuesday workout, the gap between your Saturday soccer match and practice on Tuesday, or the 2-week taper before a marathon.

Unlike short-term recovery, training recovery is less defined and less studied, leaving athletes with burning questions. 

How much rest is enough?  How much rest is too much? 

Where should you include a rest day in your training schedule? 

Will rest affect your performance?  Will rest actually help you?

Plus, for many competitive athletes, rest is viewed as a risk since competitors might be training more often or harder to gain an advantage.  When you combine the questions surrounding rest and recovery with the fear of losing to a harder working competitor, it’s a no-brainer why athletes will skip or avoid rest.  Fear and misunderstanding shouldn’t drive athletes to skip a crucial phase of their training.

Rest and recovery, when used effectively, can reduce mental fatigue, assist in enjoyment of training, and enhance performance without the fear of losing training time to another athlete.

Interestingly, athletes spend the majority of their weekly training in recovery…they just might not realize it!

Active vs. Passive Rest 

Rest and recovery can be accomplished in many different ways.  Often, rest is visualized as lazing out on the couch with a blanket and binging Netflix.  Although this might be how you “rest” from work or a busy week, it’s not necessarily the best way to rest from athletic endeavors.

television and mug

There are two different types of rest: passive and active. 

Passive rest is the complete cessation of exercise or movement beyond baseline daily activity.  Passive rest doesn’t need to be lying on the couch or recliner all day.  Passive rest can include grocery shopping, doing housework, or going to work.  Small activities, like small house chores, are so far below physical training that your body tissues are able to repair and return to normal function.

Active rest involves submaximal exercise or cross-training to speed recovery.  Examples of active rest include Yoga, Pilates, hiking, easy swimming and cycling, and stretching. These activities promote several key aspects of recovery: the removal of waste products of exercise such as lactic acid and metabolites, improving optimal muscle length to avoid stiffness, increase muscle oxygenation to decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and restoration of muscle glycogen.

For runners, a “recovery run” is a form of active rest where you are running at your long-slow distance pace or slower for a short number of miles.  So, even though you are running, it’s at such a submaximal level compared to training that your body is still able to recover.  The problem is that most runners run too fast on their recovery run to actually recover!

So, what does the science say about active vs. passive rest?

Research on Rest and Recovery

To study passive rest, researchers Bosak et al. looked at the optimal passive rest duration between successive, maximal-effort 5km runs.  They wanted to find out whether 24 hours or 72 hours was a more optimal training recovery interval to be able to repeat the 5km run without a decrease in time.

They found that trained runners were unable to match their baseline 5km time with only 24 hours of passive rest, but were able to match their 5km with 72 hours of rest. 

When trying to match or beat successive race performances, rest and recovery closer to 72 hours is more optimal than 24 hours.

Comparable results were also found with strength training.  Researchers McLester et al. performed a similar study using 10-rep maximum (10RM) lifts to momentary muscular failure in 8 different exercises.  Basically, they used heavy enough weight that the athlete couldn’t complete any additional repetitions of each exercise.  They then had the athletes rest for intervals of 24, 48, 72, or 96 hours before repeating the workout.  The researchers were looking to see which rest interval was optimal to be able to match their initial lifting performance.

Their testing concluded that NONE of the participants were able to match their 10RM after only 24 hours.  At 48 hours, only 40 percent of athletes matched their 10RM, and at 72-96 hours 80 percent were able to match their 10RM. 

Similar studies were performed by other researchers with the consensus that approximately 48 hours is enough recovery time for trained strength athletes to recovery.  It was noted that athletes over the age of 50 needed additional recovery time to match baseline strength efforts.

So, what does this mean for training?

For strength training athletes, if you’re trying to perform maximal or high-intensity lifts, it’s best to separate your lifting by at least 2 days to achieve optimal recovery. If you’re an endurance athlete, it’s best to avoid successive race pace, high-intensity interval, or speed days as your performance will be negatively affected.

What about Tapering?

Tapering is a period of training commonly utilized by endurance athletes that involves reduced volume and increased recovery time, and it’s one of the most common areas of interest under the umbrella of recovery and rest.  The theory is that with additional recovery after a period of intensive training, your body will be recovered enough to produce maximal effort.

But, how much taper time is enough?  Do you continue to do speed work?  Will you lose performance if you taper?

These can be scary questions as a tier one race approaches. What if your pre-race strategy undermines all the training you’ve done? The key to optimizing taper is to allow optimal recovery without a decrease in performance.

Tapering has been shown to improve running performance by up to 6%!  The time necessary to properly taper varies between 4 and 28 days; however, most studies advocate for a shorter taper time. Researchers Mujika and Padilla performed a review of the science surrounding tapering and found that the best way to taper is to reduce overall training volume while maintaining intensity. 

This might come as a surprise to most runners as tapering is commonly treated as a reduction in both volume and intensity.  Basically, the goal is to keep a high quality of training while reducing the overall quantity in order to optimize performance.

The meta-analysis concluded that a two-week taper with a 40-60% reduction in training volume (without a decrease in intensity) is optimal.

 

How Often Do You Need a Rest Day?

Even when you know you need rest days, it’s common to be stumped by how many to take and how often to take them.

The answer is, it depends.

The need to recover is based on the volume and intensity of training as well as the training status of the athlete.  Individual sports also have varying rest and recovery requirements in order to obtain optimal performance. In other words, a soccer player and a swimmer may need different amounts of rest at different frequencies.  

From a very basic and overarching perspective, you can separate the need for rest days into two camps: strength athletes and endurance athletes.

Based on aforementioned strength training studies, 48 hours is the optimal recovery time in order to repeat maximal lifting efforts.  Therefore, incorporating at least 1-2 active/passive rest days into your weekly training would be ideal to optimize performance.

Endurance athletes should avoid maximal race efforts on successive days and can utilize either passive or active rest to recover between speed and interval runs.  Technically, runners can run every day as long as the recovery runs are short and slow.  Intuition suggests that taking one cross-training or non-running day is beneficial.  Plus, injury studies on runners show that incorporating cross-training such as weight training can have significant impacts on injury reduction.

Listening to Your Body: Signs of Over-Training

For weekend warriors or athletes without an attentive (or private) coaching staff, rest days can provide one final hurdle: how to know when you just “need one.”

For athletes who attend supervised practices or have private coaches, the extra set of eyes can help validate when fatigue seems to set in faster than normal and recovery isn’t quite working the way it should. Without the benefit of outside eyes, it’s difficult to be objective about your training.

It’s easy to ignore overtraining symptoms with assumptions that you’re fatigued because the workout’s too hard or you’re not fit enough to complete it. Rest days can be scary; for the committed athlete, it may feel like the rest of the pack is outpacing you by working while you’re resting.

But – as shown in this article – rest is essential. If you’re feeling run down and fatigued beyond your normal threshold, take a moment to evaluate some key factors to identify whether or not you’re overtraining. Often, you’re told to just “listen to your body,” but these symptoms are much easier to identify by looking at data points. A workout log or smartwatch data can provide assistance in identifying symptoms of overtraining.

Symptoms:

  • Muscle soreness and weakness
    • Soreness that prevents proper form for training
    • Soreness at rest that doesn’t go away with warm up
    • Weakness that prevents previous training output
  • Decreased exercise performance
    • Unable to hit times, weights, goals
  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased quality and quantity of sleep
    • Wakes frequently
    • Less REM sleep
  • GI upset
  • Elevated basal hear rate
    • Mostly due to inflammation and repair processes keeping the body on overdrive even at rest
    • Best predictor of overtraining from data perspective
  • Apathy towards training
  • Decreased motivation and focus

 

When you hit a point where you don’t feel like you’re adequately recovering and start to worry about overtraining, take a step back and look at the data. At the same time, look at other aspects of your training regimen and lifestyle – physical activity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Examine your sleep habits, your diet, your water consumption, and whether or not you have abnormal stressors in other parts of life.

Overtraining is less common for recreational athletes as they typically don’t push their bodies to physical limits.  Masters and elite athletes have to monitor overtraining regularly as they are often operating at threshold to achieve fractions of improvement.  If your symptoms can be attributed to a lack of sleep or poor diet, work on shoring up those inefficiencies before assuming you’re overtraining. Consulting with a medical professional is always a practical first step in identifying overtraining.

Final Advice on Rest Days

Rest days are essential to performing at the top of your game – the science proves it. Don’t cheat yourself out of your best efforts under the guise of “working harder.” Plan rest days into your routine, and remember that you can’t be constantly progressing.

Enjoy the opportunity to relax and slow your body down. Appreciate what your body does for you. If you truly have trouble sitting still or value exercise as part of your daily routine, use rest days to explore alternative ways of moving.

For endurance athletes, truly long-slow runs can work. For strength athletes (or endurance), explore flexibility, range of motion work, yoga, or different versions of “functional” or “primal” movements. It keeps you moving and helps you get to know your body better – it might even provide insight into weaknesses or areas that are holding you back.

Ultimately, take your rest days, have fun with it, and enjoy the process – even the “down” days.

Why Athletes Need Rest Days: The Importance of Rest

Looking for the BEST deals we have to offer? Sign up for information about our holiday sale!
X