As athletes, we take pride in our physical accomplishments. It’s exciting to track improvements and realize that you are, in fact, becoming stronger or faster. Sometimes, however, against our better judgement, we tend to overwork ourselves. A big part of improving is listening to our bodies, especially tuning in when it tell us that it needs a break.
Last year, while I was training for my first triathlon, I learned (the hard way) how necessary rest days can be. I had a strange notion that the more I worked out, the more I would improve: I’d begin to see my pace pick up, I’d be able to run/swim/bike farther, and I would ultimately become stronger.
The problem is – the opposite was beginning to happen. I arrived at my evening swim class as I always did, and within minutes of entering the pool, I could tell that it was not my day. I struggled through that entire hour-long class – feeling like my body just wanted to stop. The next day, I set out for a run, yet my run was even worse than the swim! What was wrong with me?
I needed a rest day. It’s that simple. I could workout all I wanted, but at some point, I was going to have a take a day off in order for my body to repair itself. That’s how you improve. I had been exercising to such an extent that my muscles couldn’t recuperate that quickly.
Rest days are not a punishment – they’re rewards! If you’ve been working hard, your body will let you know. On your rest day, it will begin to build back the muscles that have been used repeatedly during your training. After a rest day or two, these muscles will be repaired to be even stronger than they were before. Your body is actually very productive on your days off!
Knowing the signs that your body gives when it’s fatigued is important as you may mistake it for a lack of fitness and attempt to overtrain. Over exercising can also lead to an injury at which point, you may have to give up active days for a while in order to properly recover. The body is only built to sustain so much stress. It’s important to be aware of when you need to take it easy.
Listen to your body. It will tell you when it’s tired. If you start to notice that you’re feeling unusually tired during workouts, you can’t seem to get to sleep at night, your body is feeling uncharacteristically heavy or weak, or you’re really sore – it’s time to take a break.
Rest days aren’t just beneficial to your body – they work wonders for your mental health as well. There can be a lot of pressure from training plans, coaches, and even yourself to fit into a certain cookie-cutter style exercise regimen that isn’t necessarily right for you. If you’re stressed or upset about the way your workouts are going – take a step back. You’ll be much less anxious when you return to your sport having taken some time off.
What can you do during your rest day to help make the most of your time away from your sport?
1. Take it easy. A rest day means rest. Don’t cheat it by trying to fit in a different kind of workout. (That’s what cross-training days are for!)
2. Stretch. Just because you shouldn’t be working out doesn’t mean that you can’t treat your body to some stretches and recovery activities.
Stretching, some light yoga, a short walk, or even a massage are considered to be low-impact activities and won’t interrupt your body’s healing process. Make sure to take it easy though - you aren’t aiming to work up a sweat or burn calories.
3. Eat healthy foods. Make sure you’re eating a diet full of the proper nutrients that your body needs. Pay close attention to protein, in particular. Protein helps to aid your tissue and cell (muscle) recovery. A rest day is a perfect excuse to incorporate more meat, poultry, eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, cheese, and yogurt into your diet.
4. Catch up on sleep. A rest day is the perfect opportunity to sleep in a little bit and get to bed early. You’re not dedicating time to your workout that day, so fill that time with some rest or relaxation.
5. Treat yourself. Do something small that will enhance/prepare you for your next workout. Purchase some new activewear. Get your bike tuned up. Get a sports massage. Get fitted for some new running shoes. Scout out some local races online and pick out some promising ones.
So remember: It’s okay to skip out on a workout. It’s okay to take a day off.
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