While taking a load off may seem like a relatively easy task to complete, one of the most difficult aspects of implementing a workout program is knowing when to rest, and how much to rest.
And if you’re like me, chances are—you’ve made the mistake of not giving your body enough rest over and over again. And then, over again.
Unfortunately, insufficient rest (or overexposure to volume or intensity) can lead to injury, fatigue, decreased performance, and loss of enthusiasm or motivation. This can derail training in the short-term, and create frustration, chronic injuries, and inconsistent results in the long-term.
While most people understand these consequences and have likely experienced some of them first-hand, trying to make decisions based on our body’s feedback can be incredibly challenging, especially since fatigue, soreness, and lack of motivation can occur when overtraining isn’t part of the equation.
So, what’s the secret to knowing when to take a rest day? It all starts with learning to fall in love with rest.
The Beauty of Rest
Rest is one of the most important aspects of a workout program because it allows the body to adapt to the training it has been exposed to. In other words, training doesn’t make you stronger—your rest does.Training doesn't make you stronger. Your rest does.
Yes, of course—there must be exposure to adequate intensity and frequency of training to initiate the adaptation process. But without appropriate rest, muscle breakdown can exceed muscle recovery and growth, which puts the body into a catabolic or destructive state.
So, when considering your training, think about the following equation:
Training = Work + Rest
Where Work is the compilation of the workouts you do over a time period, and Rest is the compilation of rest your body requires during the same amount of time to recover from the work completed.
In order for strength, growth, and adaptation to occur, both have to be in balance.
The Struggle of the Rest Day
Armed with this information, many people still struggle with knowing when to take a rest day because of the relationship many of us create with working out, and the preconceived notions that exist around fitness, success, and self-worth.
Most of us find comfort in having a schedule and keeping to a routine, especially when improvements are happening, and goals are being reached. To add to that, many people often end up associating their identity with whatever activity they are doing, and put a significant amount of weight in their ability to perform in a workout.
As a result, the ability to appropriately listen to the body is clouded by fear of losing control, comfort, and personal identity.
People also tend to struggle with rest days because they have bought into the idea that progress won’t occur without suffering. This can lead to engaging with potentially damaging behaviors, like “pushing through the pain,” and performing workouts when overly fatigued or sore.
So, let’s set the record straight, shall we?
To build fitness and strength, you do not need to work at maximal capacity, or push through pain. Furthermore, you do not need to workout every day, or hours at a time to see results.
In fact, when engaging with fitness, you do not need to force fitness adaptations. The truth of the matter is, you can’t really stop it.
While there is absolutely a place for going hard and using maximal efforts, it’s best to error on the side of “less is more” – especially if you are just getting into fitness and learning the signals your body is giving you. Overtime, you can reevaluate your plan and make slight increases in intensity and time depending on your goals.
You can always add more, but you can’t take away damage that’s already been done.
To add to the mess, the conventional fitness industry has made “skipping” a workout seem like something we should feel shame or guilt for doing. As a result, many people perceive that their level of self-discipline is intertwined with their self-worth as a human being.
If that’s you—I have incredibly great news for you.
Your self-worth as a human being is not related to the workouts you perform.
Furthermore, you are not a “good” or “bad” person based on the workouts you do or don’t do. Recognizing these truths will eliminate the need to feel guilt or shame for taking additional time off, and listening to your body.
How to Assess If You Need More Rest
Overtraining is when intensity, duration, frequency of training, or any combination of these factors exceeds an individual’s capacity for adaptation.
In other words, it’s when the body is exposed to more stress than it can handle.
Overtraining is characterized by decreased performance, sleep disturbances, decrease in lean body mass, decreased appetite, low immune system function, adrenal insufficiency, loss of motivation, mood disturbances such as depression and anxiety, increased muscle soreness, decreased resting and maximal heart rate, and decreased maximal oxygen uptake – to name a few. The best way to avoid overtraining is to stop it before it happens.
So, how do know if you’re going down the path of overtraining? Because early symptoms can be hard to pick up on, here are five questions I recommend asking yourself when figuring out if it’s time to take a rest day (or week depending on severity of symptoms):
1. Are you excessively sore?
Experiencing muscle soreness or tightness that inhibits proper mobility is a good sign your muscles aren’t ready to experience additional stress.
2. Do you have a nagging pain?
The appearance of pain or a “twing” that won’t resolve, especially in the back, knee, ankle and foot, may indicate excessive inflammation and the need for more time to repair.
3. Do you feel weak or “off?”
Decreased performance is one of the most common signs of overtraining. When your warm-up weight starts to feel like your max, or a 200m run feels like a mile – it’s a good sign that it’s time to abandon ship.
4. Feeling not that into it?
Loss of interest, enthusiasm, and motivation for performing workouts you genuinely enjoy doing typically means it’s time to take a step back.
5. Are you overly fatigued or drained?
The cumulative effective of a couple bad nights of sleep, a big project at work, and family drama can expose the body to a high amount of stress in a short period of time. Adding a workout into the equation will likely push the body to experience a demand it’s not capable of managing appropriately.
Designing Your Rest Plan
When creating a workout plan, I recommend separating rest into two categories: planned rest and unplanned rest.
Planned rest is any rest that is actually planned or scheduled into the workout plan. Depending on your goals, experience level, and your body’s response to different types of workouts, the amount of planned rest that is necessary for muscle recovery and growth will vary greatly from person to person.
Because I can actually hear you saying “WAIT! Don’t go! I need specifics!” – I’m going to provide you with a framework for scheduling planned rest based on experience. Please keep in mind, your specific work to rest ratio will depend on a number of factors, and will be unique to you. If you’re unsure about what your body can handle, error on the side of more rest, and increase your frequency of working out as you have a better understanding of what your body can handle:
- 0-6 months experience: 3-4 rest days per week
- 6-12 months experience: 2-3 rest days per week
- 12 or more months experience: 1-3 rest days per week
Unplanned rest is any rest that is needed in addition to planned rest. This rest typically occurs when you answer “yes” to any of the questions above, which can mean your body is experiencing excessive stress.
By having unplanned rest as part of the equation, it reinforces the fact that your workout plan is a framework, and the deciding factor when it comes to workout frequency, volume, and intensity is your body.
While unplanned rest is generally unplanned, I recommend keeping one workout each week as a “flex” day. Depending on how your body is responding, you can swap your planned workout for a light workout or a rest day.
Making the Most of Rest Days
So, what do you do when you’ve officially made the decision that it’s time to take a rest day? Depending on the severity of your symptoms, I recommend doing some mobility work, light stretching, or going for a walk in order to improve blood flow and relieve muscle tightness, which will facilitate proper recovery.
And interestingly enough, listening to my body, taking more rest days, and giving myself more time to work on mobility has made me stronger, faster, and much more harder to kill than I ever was when I was working out twice as much, and twice as long.
Funny how that works out.
Do you struggle with knowing when to take a rest day? Let me know your thoughts below!