Lifestyle
September 25, 2018

Why Rest Days Are Important (And How to Get The Most From Them)

Man sleeping in white sheets

Early in my racing career, the idea of a rest day was not something I liked the thought of. I liked to train, I liked to push myself and the idea of taking a rest made me feel lazy. Like I was being out-worked by my not-so-lazy competitors.

It seems I am not the only athlete to ever feel like this.

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have a great ability to handle high loads of training. The more I trained, the more I began to suffer from a growing number of niggles and colds.

Once my coach explained to me that training was breaking me down and that rest was the antidote to absorbing training and building my fitness up, I began to embrace rest for what it was. An essential part of the training process.

New mindset in place, the niggles and colds began to disappear, consistency increased and my performance improved.

With rest now an essential piece of the puzzle, I began to strategically structure it into my training and season plans. As a coach, I do the same for Coached athletes too.

How Many Rest Days Should You Have?

While I wish this was a simple answer, like most questions relating to training, the answer is it depends. There are so many variables that come in to play when considering a question like this and they all need to be considered.

Your work, family and social commitments.  Athletic background, current fitness level, training load, goals and injury history are all important.

While considering these things, it’s important to keep in mind that recovery from training is the main goal of a rest day.

If you’re training a lot or if you have a very demanding schedule outside of your sport, then it’s likely, you’ll benefit more from rest.

As a guideline, I encourage Coached athletes to start with a minimum of one full day of rest each week. Many take more, some take an active recovery day instead. Others take a day of rest once a fortnight.

It really doesn’t matter so long as the outcome is achieved and you can train consistently without losing motivation, falling sick, getting injured or feeling totally knackered all the time.

The key is to find out what works for you and not to be afraid, or feel guilty, for taking your day of rest.

Sign up for Coached running or triathlon programmes.

How To Get More From Your Rest Day

Now that a rest day is an essential part of your mindset and training process, here are four things I have found to amplify the effects of a rest day.

For best results, do them all together. They do work independently though so if something below doesn’t appeal or is not possible, the others will still help. Feel free to pick and choose the ones that you think will work for you.

This is not a complete list, these are simply the ones I believe to be most effective.

Disconnect. It’s not just your body that needs a rest, your brain does too. The endless stream of decisions you have to make each day, the work your brain does coordinating your muscles and every other physiological process during training and your constant consumption of digital stimulation leaves your brain exhausted.

As the most energy-consuming organ in the body, your brain uses approximately twenty per cent of your total daily energy. That’s a heck of a lot and for that reason, you need to let your brain rest too.

To really let your brain rest, you need to reduce the amount of stimulation it receives. In my experience, the best way to do this is to disconnect. Go offline when you’re not at work. Avoid social media, television and other digital forms of stimulation.

To fill the void, go old-school and open a book, go for a walk (see below) or get lost in a puzzle.

A daily meditation practice is also useful for the health and performance of your brain and I highly encourage you to form a habit of meditation.

Move. Outside of training, it’s common for athlete’s to be sedentary (believe it or not). If you work a typical desk job, there is a high chance that you’re spending most of your day curled up at a desk with very little movement throughout the day.

Low-intensity movement, like walking and stretching is really beneficial in the recovery process as it helps to keep blood moving and to flush out waste products produced during training.

To get more from your rest days (and training days for that matter), I encourage you to get off your ass and move around more often. Go outside for a walk between meetings. Attend a yoga class, use a foam roller or do some stretching. It doesn’t matter what you do so long as it’s short and easy.

Eat well. Food plays a major role in fueling and recovering from training. Over the past 10 years, I have become a believer in a lower carb, healthy fat approach to nutrition. I’m also starting to believe that a periodised approach to nutrition could be as useful as it is for training. That’s a story for another day though.

It’s important to note that I said lower carbohydrate, not low, as the exact amount of carbohydrate needed can vary greatly between individuals.

Let’s just say that most people would benefit by significantly lowering the amount of processed carbohydrate they eat and leave it at that for now.

There’s a number of reasons for this belief and one of them is that it helps to keep inflammation levels low in your body.

On your rest days, stay away from processed foods and eat lots of healthy fats.

Hydrate. When your body is dehydrated, it is in a state of stress. For that reason, staying well-hydrated is an important part of training and recovery.

To determine how much you need to drink and how much sodium you are losing in your sweat, I recommend doing Precision Hydrations FREE Online Sweat Test. If you’re in Singapore, you can also visit our lab for an advanced sweat test, where we measure the exact amount of sodium you are losing per litre in your sweat.

With these numbers, you’ll know what you need to drink to remain hydrated during training and at rest. From there it’s simply a matter of mixing up your drink and keeping your bottle on you throughout the day.

Nap. I have spoken before about the importance of sleep. We all need it but it is even more important for people like you, training hard.

A rest day is a great time to sneak in a little extra sleep. Either through an extended night’s sleep or through a short nap throughout the day.

With no training to do, see how you can use this excess time to steal an extra hour or so of sleep. Not only will it help you to physically recover, it is also a primary player in the recovery of your brain too.

Performance = Training + Rest

Training causes micro-tears in your muscles, dehydrates you and burns up your glycogen stores. It mentally fatigues you and generally breaks you down.

Only when you do the training and allow your body time to recover, does it absorb the training and make you stronger. I encourage you to think of rest as part of training and not as something taboo or for people who are soft.

AuthorBen PulhamBen Pulham is a former professional triathlete and the founder of Coached, a heart rate training programme that helps you optimise, track and enjoy your training.