Starting in January this year (2010), I began following a regular schedule of exercise. It began with the P90X program in January and then I started CrossFit in August. So, I knew what I was supposed to be doing every day of the week. However there was one part of the schedule that I didn’t exactly follow and that was the rest day. Instead, I typically used the rest day as a running day or worked in a long hike. It felt strange to do nothing on the rest day, so I always tried to work some type of non-weightlifting exercise in on that day.
I have learned now that this was a mistake during my P90X phase. A big mistake. I continued this mistake during my CrossFit training too, at first. For a little while I was actually trying to do P90X routines on my CrossFit “rest days”. But, I was so sore from doing so much lifting that I switched to running on my rest days again. I finally asked my trainer if a rest day actually meant “do nothing” and I did some research online as well. The answer is quite clear: YES! There are certain things that you can do on your rest days; like walking, stretching, some types of yoga, and maybe swimming. There is nothing wrong with moving your body to increase the circulation to those muscles and help them heal. You don’t need to sit on the couch all day. But, you do not want to stress your muscles more with lifting or strenuous exercise (like I did once when I ran 13 miles on a rest day).
When you exercise hard and lift weights, it creates microscopic tears in your muscles. This is normal and it is the process of healing those tears that strengthens the muscle and makes it bigger. However, your body needs the right nutrients and time to heal and repair that muscle (usually 1-2 days). You need the mental break as well; hopefully even getting more sleep on that day. It prepares you to hit the next exercise day hard and feeling refreshed. Otherwise, you risk burnout and an increased chance of injury.
So, what can happen if you think you are special and can keep exercising through your rest days? Eventually you run the risk of a condition called “Overtraining Syndrome“:
- Your muscle doesn’t have time to heal, so you stop seeing muscle growth and progress
- As you keep “damaging” the muscle without recovery, you feel weaker and wonder why your performance is decreasing
- You start compensating to protect sore muscles, which means you are no longer using good form and you are more vulnerable to injury
- Your immune system weakens, so you start getting sick more often
- You feel a loss of enthusiasm and maybe even a loss of appetite
- You lose motivation, burn out, and give up
On the flip side, what happens if you don’t follow a regular schedule and just try to take rest days whenever you feel like taking one? I know, because this is what I used to do before I started my regular programs. You feel sore and tired, so you take a rest day to recover. Fine. The next morning, you wake up, you still feel a little stiff and, let’s face it, who doesn’t feel tired first thing in the morning? So you convince yourself that you need more time to recover. Before you know it, one day of rest turns into two. Two turns into three and so on. You fall off the wagon.
So, I’ve found that regularly scheduling your rest and recovery days is beneficial on both fronts. It forces you to take the much-needed time for your body to recover and it keeps you from slipping into an eternal sequence of unscheduled rest days. Win win! Now that I am truly taking rest days as part of my CrossFit training, I am definitely seeing more progress than I had before. Although I did achieve really good results with P90X, I felt like I reached a strength plateau and was frustrated that I couldn’t seem to reach the next level. So, take a look at your exercise plan today and make sure you schedule the rest days you need to succeed.