Importance of Rest and Recovery After Your Exercise

Man drinking water and resting after exercise
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Most athletes know that getting enough rest after exercise is essential to high-level performance, but many still feel guilty when they take a day off. The body repairs and strengthens itself in the time between workouts, and continuous training can actually weaken the strongest athletes.

Rest days are critical to sports performance for a variety of reasons. Some are physiological and some are psychological. Rest is physically necessary so that the muscles can repair, rebuild, and strengthen. For recreational athletes, building in rest days can help maintain a better balance between home, work, and fitness goals.

In the worst-case scenario, too little rest and too few recovery days can lead to overtraining syndrome. Once you have this condition, it is difficult to recover from it.

What Happens During Recovery?

Building recovery time into any training program is important because this is the time that the body adapts to the stress of exercise and the real training effect takes place. Exercise or any other physical work causes fluid loss, muscle tissue breakdown, and the depletion of energy stores (muscle glycogen).

Recovery allows the body to replenish energy stores and repair damaged tissues.Without sufficient time to repair and replenish, the body will continue to break down from intensive exercise.

Symptoms of overtraining often occur from a lack of recovery time. Signs of overtraining include a feeling of general malaise, staleness, depression, decreased sports performance, and increased risk of injury, among others.

Short-Term Recovery

Short-term recovery, sometimes called active recovery, occurs in the hours immediately after intense exercise. Active recovery includes low-intensity exercise during the cool-down phase immediately after a hard workout, as well as during the days following the workout. Both types of active recovery are linked to performance benefits.

Another major focus of recovery immediately following exercise is replenishing energy stores and fluids and optimizing protein synthesis (the process of increasing the protein content of muscle cells, preventing muscle breakdown, and increasing muscle size). You achieve this by consuming the right foods and drinks in the post-exercise meal.

During active recovery, the body works to repair soft tissue (muscles, tendons, and ligaments). It's also a time for removal of chemicals that build up as a result of cell activity during exercise.

Getting quality sleep is also an important part of short-term recovery. Make sure to get plenty of sleep, especially if you are training hard.

One or two nights of poor sleep usually won't have much impact on performance. But consistently inadequate sleep can result in changes in hormone levels, particularly those related to stress, muscle recovery, and mood. Sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), decreased activity of human growth hormone (which is important for tissue repair), and decreased glycogen synthesis.

Long-Term Recovery

Long-term recovery techniques are built in to a seasonal training program. Most well-designed year-long training schedules will include recovery days and/or weeks. This is also why athletes and coaches change training programs throughout the year, adding crosstraining, modifying workout types, and makimg changes in intensity, time, and distance.

Adaptation to Exercise

The Principle of Adaptation states that when we undergo the stress of physical exercise, our body adapts and becomes more efficient. It’s just like learning any new skill. At first, it’s difficult, but over time, it becomes second nature. Once you adapt to a given stress, you require additional stress to continue to make progress.

But there are limits to how much stress the body can tolerate before it breaks down and suffers injury. Doing too much work too quickly will result in injury or muscle damage. Doing too little too slowly will not result in any improvement. This is why personal trainers set up specific programs that increase time and intensity at a planned rate and allow rest days.

A Word From Verywell

It is the alternation of adaptation and recovery that takes athletes to a higher level of fitness. High-level athletes need to realize that the greater the training intensity and effort, the greater the need for recovery. Monitor your workouts with a training log and pay attention to how your body feels and how motivated you are. This will help you determine your recovery needs and modify your training program accordingly.

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