What goes through your head when someone tells you to take a rest day? Do you feel a sense of dread? Maybe you think, “I’m going to lose the progress I have made” or “I’m going to decline if I don’t train every day.” Or perhaps it has to do with weight or appearance. Whatever the thoughts are for you, they are very valid thoughts.
If it makes you feel any better, I had those same thoughts for many years.
I thought I had to train daily in order to continue making gains with my speed, endurance, and strength. I thought I would gain body fat if I didn’t train.
THE MENTAL STRUGGLE WAS REAL!!!
To be honest, it still is at times. But I also know what will happen to my body if I don’t take the rest breaks my body needs.
This past week, my training started out great, just as it has been the last several months. By Thursday, my body told me “enough is enough.” My body wasn’t recovering like it normally does during workouts – heart rate was staying elevated, breathing was uncontrolled, I was requiring more rest. Things just weren’t feeling right.
Because I know my body well now, I chose to take an extra rest day. I normally rest on Sundays but decided to take Saturday off completely as well to let my body rest and recover properly.
So…what happens to the body when we don’t let it rest and recover?
Exercise is a stressor to the body. Yes, it is a good stressor, but a stressor, nonetheless. This means, our cortisol increases temporarily. This is normal AND a good thing. With proper recovery, the stress level decreases and therefore cortisol decreases to a normal level.
Unfortunately, we often don’t give ourselves the proper recovery and rest. This causes our cortisol levels to stay high. For short term, this is fine. Long term, not so much. The higher the cortisol levels get, the less our body recovers. This will eventually lead to symptoms of overtraining, such as increased fatigue, reduced strength, elevated heart rate, difficulty breathing, and reduced performance. It is not really a question of “if” but rather a question of “when.”
To add insult to injury, this cycle also increases our risk of injury. If we are not allowing our bodies to return to come down off its high stress level, our muscles and tendons can’t fully repair themselves either. This can result in chronic muscle strains, muscle tears, tendinitis, or other chronic injuries that just don’t seem to make sense or go away.
Not making the muscle gains you want with the amount of training you are doing? Cortisol has a negative effect on testosterone. Meaning, when cortisol levels are high, our testosterone levels decrease. Once the cortisol levels decrease, the testosterone levels pick back up. Both males and females need testosterone in order to build muscle. (Yes, males need testosterone for a number of other purposes as well.) Minimal rest -> increased stress -> increased cortisol -> decreased testosterone -> decreased muscle gain.
Eating right and training, but not losing the body fat you want to lose? Cortisol has been found to have a negative effect on metabolism and insulin. High levels of cortisol can slow your metabolism and cause you to store more body fat. Minimal rest -> increased stress -> increased cortisol -> slower metabolism -> increased body fat.
To go along with the amount of training we are doing increasing our cortisol, our cortisol levels can also be exacerbated by life stressors and lack of sleep. If you are under a lot of stress at work or home, this is impacting your recovery and your performance. The same goes for if you are not sleeping well. These scenarios don’t necessarily mean you can’t train during these times, but it does mean you may have to modify your training for a short time while in those situations.
It is always important to assess how your body and mind are feeling and take that into account when you are training. A great way to do this is rate your stress level and your sleep prior to each training session. If the scores are poor, maybe think about backing down the intensity, volume, or load of your training session.
The more you learn to listen to your body and give it the appropriate rest and recovery time needed, the better results you will have!
Have more questions regarding training and recovery? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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