Given our work hard play hard culture, the idea of taking time off the gym for a while may seem counterintuitive. As though in a matter of days, you’ll somehow completely transform and wake up with zero muscle tone and the aerobic capacity of an asthmatic chain smoker.
But if you exercise regularly — particularly of the go-hard-or-go-home variety — a little rest may actually be exactly what you need.
Conventional fitness wisdom has always been to wait 48 hours before working the same muscle group again. But muscles don’t repair quickly, and if you’ve exercised really hard, it could take up to five full days for you to fully recover. It’s during that downtime that you get stronger.
That’s because every time you work out, you traumatize your muscles, creating microscopic tears in the tissue. Sounds scary, but it’s actually the healing of those tiny tears that make your muscles grow in size and strength. So, if you keep training hard, you could defeat those gains and break your body down more than you build it up. In other words, all that hard work goes down the drain. Not Cool right?
Also not cool? Overtraining will almost certainly lead into injury. It’s simple overuse math. Traumatize your muscles too much, and those microtears will compound into an injury that will set you back in your training, like a pulled groin or a tweaked back.
I’m not saying you should totally be a couch potato. Just resting is probably the worst thing you can do. You want to do something easy to keep moving just enough to increase blood flow to your muscles — which helps with the healing process — but not so much that you add unnecessary stress to your muscles. Think: light exercise, like taking your dog for a walk, going for an easy swim, or a restorative yoga class.
Eating plenty of high-quality protein (eggs, lean chicken, yogurt) can also speed up the recovery process.
Proteins are made up of amino acids that facilitate tissue repair — they’re literally the building blocks of muscle. Carbs and fats are also important, of course, but protein is especially valuable. The right amount of protein is different for everybody. Listen to your body is the best thing you can do. Give your body what you want.
Sometimes we mistake dehydration for hunger, so make water a key priority in your recovery as well.
It’s equally important to take a break from intense cardio.
Excessive cardio raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol and other markers of inflammation in the body to unhealthy levels. It’s best to take exercise sabbaticals where you are periodically taking seven to 10 days off. When you run, for example, you’re generating a force of four to five times’ your body weight with each stride. That’s pretty traumatic. And while powerlifters certainly train that way, they’re also incorporating mobility and flexibility work into their routines — they know the value of recovery and that it won’t set them back.
A little time off will help you come back stronger and more motivated than before. Use your time wisely and conquer those goals!