The reality of exercise is that you don’t make progress when you work out—you make progress when you recover from the workout. The workout is the stimulus, while recovery and improvement is the physical response.
But what does recovery mean and what can you do to help yourself and your clients recover from the physical demands of training? I will answer this question based on the insights I’ve gained through formal learning and my experiences as a 15-year, multiple award-winning fitness professional.
When it comes to exercise and rest, proper recovery is as important as proper training—and it is also often just as confusing as there are many strategies claiming to be the correct way to train and recover. There are rarely—if ever—any training or recovery strategies that will serve everyone universally. Manipulating the bigger concepts to fit a specific individual can take some trial and error, but it yields a more sophisticated understanding of what the body needs.
Rest Day Defined
To most of your clients, “rest” means absolute stillness. A period of stillness can be helpful for both body and mind, but stillness should not last an entire day. The one important factor to remember about recovery is that it is largely about tissue regeneration and nutrient delivery. Exercise creates a physical stimulus for the body to get better at the challenge with which it was presented and that can only happen if there is blood flow. Circulation brings nutrients to the tissues, nutrients provide the material to facilitate the improvement, and circulation is enhanced by movement.
Thus, a “rest” day is characterized by a need for some movement—not by being sedentary on the couch all day. Each day of the week should contain decent amounts of movement, while some days will also contain a challenging workout. Movement is a daily occurrence. A rest day is really any non-training day—a day where you remove the challenge of hard exercise. So it might even include some exercise-type activities, provided the intensity is manipulated to avoid providing a physical demand that is at or above current abilities.
How Much Is Enough?
How much recovery is enough is dependent on a wide range of individual variables, such as current physical abilities, sleep habits, dietary habits and lifestyle activity outside of exercise. An appropriate workout creates a sense of mild soreness, where you can feel that the muscles experienced a challenge; it should not be a debilitating, painful soreness that lasts for several days. That is a poorly designed workout. Many clients wrongly believe that a workout must be so hard that you should feel significant soreness for several days (unfortunately, many trainers mistakenly deliver this type of workout as well).
So how much recovery is enough? It’s when the soreness is gone from the muscle. A workout that is too hard and results in intense painful soreness, requires waiting until the soreness is gone to exercise again. So, if a client’s soreness lasts five days, then he or she should have five days before working out hard again. This is why it is important to train just above—but not far above—one’s current abilities: better fitness is not achieved by long gaps between training days. An appropriately challenging workout will, in general, require one to two recovery days.
If most of your clients' workouts consist of a consistent pattern of full-body training over time, then more frequent training may be possible because better, faster recovery is also likely going to occur in a well-trained individual. After all, a gardener or anyone who performs physical labor professionally does not work only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
How Can You Tell It’s Time to Have an Off-day?
Easy. When you really feel like one. This is your brain’s way of telling you that your body needs to rest. Ignore it at your own risk. Many fitness pros are obsessive about all high-intensity training, all the time, but this is a battle you are sure to lose. When your mind resists the idea of exercise, there is typically a reason. This is mostly true for consistent exercisers. For those new to exercise, it can take time for the body and mind to fully absorb the routine of regular exercise and there may be inaccurate mental signaling for an off-day. In this case, it is imperative to coach your clients on how to tell the difference between the mental pull of their former, stubborn, less-active selves and the brain’s signaling that the body needs a genuine break from the stress of exercise.
In general, even if you have manipulated the variables to allow for different workouts for several consecutive days, it is wise to allow a recovery day or lighter workout day at least every three to five days.
What is the Difference Between Rest and Recovery?
Rest is part of recovery. Recovery is everything that happens after the end of one workout and before the start of the next one. So rest includes sleep, time for stillness—both mental and physical—as well as participation in activities that provide mental and/or physical rejuvenation. This can include some Frisbee time, hitting some tennis balls, playing with your dog, etc. Rest can certainly include some movement as long as it avoids the threshold of providing a challenge to the body. Even lighter workouts can be useful as their main benefit will be to enhance circulation.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, where I’ll discuss recovery related to nutrition.