Last week, a person I follow on Twitter shared a link and posed a question: Are rest days necessary?
This is an ages-old issue, and I do mean “ages old” in the truest form. Page through the Bible’s Book of Exodus, and check out the Ten Commandments — God tells people to take a day off from work on the Sabbath. Go back into Genesis, and it says that on the seventh day of creation, God rested.
OK, OK. I’m not trying to turn this into a Sunday School lesson, but you get the gist: For thousands of years, there has been the idea that you should reserve a day per week to chill.
But does that necessarily include training for the sports we love? Should that include exercise? Is it OK to take that rest day and stretch the legs out anyway, even if for pure recreation? You know, the whole “active rest” thing?
There are a lot of arguments for and against it.
This guy writes that the idea of active rest is flawed.
And yet there is this article, in which the athlete being interviewed recommends an active rest day vs. not doing anything.
My opinion? I like the idea of actually resting on your rest day, and for a number of reasons.
First, let’s just be honest: everyone gets fatigued, even the most well-conditioned athletes. In fact, those people, by the nature of their training intensity, probably need that rest day more than the rest of us. It’s also a fact that you are more likely to become injured when in a fatigued state.
You might be tempted to think that this is giving in to sloth. Or that you’re missing an opportunity to take your game to the next level. If so, you’re thinking about rest the wrong way. Giving your body that day to just eat, hydrate and not do anything gives it an entire 24 hours to do nothing but repair and reload for the six days of work coming up. When you think of it that way, “rest” had a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?
Second, think about your heart. It’s got to be the toughest muscle in your body because it’s always at work. But it is a muscle, and it gets fatigued, too. A study published about a year ago noted that for a couple of weeks after a marathon, runners will face decreased performance in their heart. The damage is temporary, but it’s there nonetheless. The work of such an activity takes its toll that only time can heal.
Do a test. For a couple of weeks, test your resting heart rate first thing in the morning. What you need to do is at the moment you wake up, even before you roll out of bed to do anything, test your heart rate, then log the result. You will likely notice that as your previous day’s workouts amp up in intensity, your resting heart rate will be higher the next morning. If it’s 10 beats per minute higher or more than your average, take the day off. Your heart will thank you, and chances are your next workout will be better.
Third, think about your other organs. Namely your kidneys. While running has become increasingly popular, so have high-intensity programs that cram a lot of activity in a short amount of time, such as P90-X, Insanity, boot camp classes, and, most notably, Crossfit. These types of workouts need days in between of lower intensity, but some people get it in their head that they need the extra work. So they string difficult, highly taxing workouts together for days at a time. Muscle breaks down and has little time to rebuild and flush out dead tissue that results from vigorous workouts. Enter “Uncle Rhabdo,” or rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which the body floods the bloodstream with broken down muscle tissue and overwhelms the kidneys.
Symptoms include brownish urine, swelling, pain, tenderness, nausea, vomiting and abnormal heart rate and rhythm. And in the worst-case scenario, kidney damage, kidney failure and even death. Is that extra session at your Crossfit “box” worth your kidneys? Or your life? How does that rest day sound now?
Fourth, consider what you can accomplish for your body during those rest times. I like the idea of redefining the “active rest” day. Instead of hitting the weights, jumping on your bike or getting a quick run, try doing some extra time with the foam roller or some corrective exercises. Heck, go get a massage. You spend 4-6 days a week straining, stressing and breaking your body down. On your rest day, think about things you can do with your body that helps it heal.
Fifth, take a look at what you can do with your day when you don’t have to worry about squeezing in an hour or two for a workout and workout prep. Take your kids to a movie. Or your significant other on a leisurely day at the park. Watch a ballgame. Go to a worship service. Or fishing. Or just veg in front of the tube. You can’t live your entire life in a training/exercise bubble. Step outside that world once in a while and balance yourself out.
Rest days are hard for a lot of us who are active. Many of us are driven by weight loss or performance goals, or are busy training for a race or some other competition. And many of us find enjoyment and peace when we’re out there doing what we love: pounding out fast miles, ripping up some gnarly singletrack, or climbing a challenging multi-pitch route.
I’m a mix: I find peace of mind when I’m active, and I enjoy the endorphin rush when I’m done. So I get it.
But you have to think “big picture” here. I want to do all of these thing not just for the next year or so, but for the next several decades, right up to the point when old age gives way to death. Yeah, I want to be the guy who is out running, hiking, climbing and adventuring well into his 80s and beyond.
However, if I live in a state of constant physical fatigue and stress — if I don’t give my body a chance to rest, heal and regroup — the chances of injury and illness only go up. And that will, in the long-term, lessen the number of years I get to do all those active things that I love.
So take that rest day. It’s just as important as the other six days when you’re going all-out.
What are your thoughts on rest days? Let me know in the comments.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088