The Recovery Zone

Smart athletes know when to back off their hardcore training to rest and recover. Do you? The fitness gains you’re working so hard for can’t happen without some strategic breaks.


Steve Waitt crashed during a cross-country skiing race, badly injuring his shoulder. He finished the event anyway, pushing through the final eight miles in pain. A few days later he began to suffer stomach problems.

A seasoned athlete, Waitt, then 48, knew that extreme exertion and trauma could affect immunity. He’d been training hard and figured his fall and final push had put him over the edge.

What Waitt wasn’t prepared for was a double whammy: The stomach bug developed into a digestive disorder that halted him in his tracks, causing the already-lean athlete to begin losing weight precipitously. Alarmed, he sought help from doctors and was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

“It seemed like my body got pushed past the limit and went haywire,” he explains.

As a result of injury and illness, Waitt was forced to stop training. He took it easy for a few months, forgoing his regular regimen in favor of walking, easy cycling, and some light strength and flexibility work.

By late fall, with his health improving, Waitt resumed training — but he anticipated a long and frustrating task of rebuilding his fitness. When snow came, he stepped into his skis, not knowing what to expect.

Waitt was surprised and delighted to discover that he felt better than ever.

“I had this new level of endurance,” he says. “I didn’t tire as easily, and I was amazed at how strong and full of energy I felt. I’m finding now that I’m able to ski faster with less effort. Laying off and resting after so many years of hard training seems to have really paid off.”

Waitt’s story is no anomaly, according to many expert trainers. In order to get stronger, faster, and more powerful, sometimes an athlete needs to lighten up, rather than bear down.

Closed for Repairs

Your body requires stressful stimuli to grow stronger. The cycle of muscular damage and recovery is the whole basis of fitness training: You break your body down, and it responds by building itself back up stronger and better than before.

But if you’ve been putting your body through its paces without time to recover, or if you’ve been under additional physical, mental, or emotional stresses, you may not be giving your body a chance to restore itself.

To do so, you may need to change your routine, pare down your training load, or, in some cases, walk away from training altogether for a little while.

“Recovery enables you to maximize the results of your training,” says Matt Dixon, MSc, an exercise physiologist, founder of Purplepatch Fitness in San Francisco, and author of The Well-Built Triathlete. “Many athletes and coaches make the mistake of thinking of recovery as a shortcut or a time of laziness and decline, instead of viewing it as a performance booster.”

The Effort Addiction

World-class competitors all take a step back sometimes, so why do we mere mortals feel guilty when we opt for a power walk over an intense sprint session?

In many cases, it’s because we put so much emphasis on our effort as a means to an end that we don’t trust anything but effort — and lots of it — to get us there.

“It takes courage to recover,” Dixon says. “Nearly all athletes fight a natural emotional battle with the concept of recovery. They know how to train hard, yet few can truly embrace recovery with the same vigor. Hence, a lack of confidence is the typical reason athletes skip recovery.”

We’re also creatures of habit. “It’s easy to get sucked up into the routine of training rather than the goal of training,” says Ian Adamson, a three-time Eco-Challenge champion from Boulder, Colo., and author of Runner’s World Guide to Adventure Racing.

It’s important, says Adamson, to always keep in mind why you are training and to remember that strategic periods of rest and recovery are part of a good training plan.

If you have a consistent workout regimen, you needn’t live in fear of losing all momentum the instant you take your foot off the pedal. It takes much longer than a day or two for the body to lose fitness.

As long as you’ve been training consistently for six months or more, it would probably take at least two weeks of complete bed rest before your muscles see any serious shrinkage.

“Train hard just one day a week and you can maintain your fitness almost indefinitely,” says Melinda Sothern, PhD, an exercise physiologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

Sothern is not suggesting that an untrained person will make fitness strides with this approach, or that seasoned athletes will want to embrace this sort of training plan for the long term. Her point is simply that most athletes won’t lose ground as rapidly as they fear. (For more on fitness dissipation, see below.)

Getting the Message

So how do you know when you should take a break, and for how long? Your training plan should include a formal schedule of recovery periods (see “The Art of Recovery,” below). But even then, particularly if life throws you for a loop, there may be times when you find that the plan simply isn’t panning out. In those cases, it helps to be able to recognize your body’s warning signals.

As Dixon explains, “with the advent of so many training tools, such as GPS and power meters, many of today’s less experienced athletes have poor self-regulation and poor understanding of how they feel during and following the workout. We call this ‘athletic IQ,’ and it’s a powerful tool for all athletes to develop.”

Here are some common indicators that you need to take a step back, and strategies for stepping it up again.

Symptom No. 1:  You’re feeling tired and crabby

What your body is trying to tell you: It may be maxed out. Generally, exercise should make you feel better, not worse. But when you’re clocking 60-hour workweeks or planning your wedding, intense exercise can become one more stressor in your already stressed-out life. It can also further destabilize your body’s levels of amino acids and neurotransmitters. A lot of busy people find time to exercise by cutting back on sleep, but it’s during sleep that your body repairs and restores itself.

What to do: Focus on quality, rather than quantity. Instead of training six days a week, switch to an every-other-day schedule, suggests Shawn Talbott, PhD, chief science officer at LifeVantage and author of The Metabolic Method. Sleep in on your days off. “The rest and recuperation will reduce cortisol levels,” he says. “It’s better to have three good workouts during the week than to have five or six so-so workouts.”

How to come back: Once you’ve completed that merger or said your wedding vows, go ahead and add additional training days to your schedule. Just make sure to continue to get your seven to eight hours of sleep.

Symptom No. 2: You’re sick — again

What your body is trying to tell you: If you’re getting sick often, it’s a sign your immune system may need more attention than your workouts for a while. Regular exercise usually boosts immunity, but intense sessions can lower it.

What to do: Take stock of your illness. It’s OK to continue to exercise through a cold, as long as you lower the intensity and duration. Go at a slower pace and hold yourself to just 30 or 40 minutes. Don’t overload congested or infection-weakened lungs, though. As a rule, if your symptoms are below the neck — or you have a fever, are vomiting, or have diarrhea — stay in bed. Exercising with a fever will raise your body temperature even more, putting undue stress on your immune system and allowing the infection to flourish.

How to come back: The effects of illness may linger long after your fever subsides. During your first week back, train at no more than three-quarters of your normal intensity and duration. After a week, if you feel energetic during and after workouts, resume your normal training load.

During longer sessions, refuel: In a 2004 study published in The Journal of Sports Science, marathoners and triathletes who consumed a carb beverage during their race had improved blood-sugar levels, stress-hormone levels, and immunity after the workout compared with athletes who did not consume the drink. “Carb ingestion also decreases soreness and fatigue the day after a hard workout, thus improving your recovery time,” says Laura Ryan, MS, RD, tri and nutrition coach at Life Time in Syosset, N.Y.

Symptom No. 3:  You’ve hit a plateau

What your body is trying to tell you: After six to nine months on any exercise program, everyone hits a plateau. This may indicate that your body needs a new challenge. But in some cases, it’s a sign you’re pushing too far, too fast, and not giving your body’s repair systems a chance to keep up. Remember also that your maximum muscle size and metabolism are both, in part, genetically determined. Trying to overcome genetics by cranking up the intensity and duration of your workouts can backfire by suppressing immunity, which in turn suppresses your metabolism, according to Talbott. High intensity and stress create high cortisol levels that increase appetite, which may interfere with weight loss.

What to do: Evaluate your training schedule to see if you might be underrecovering (see “Overtraining vs. Underrecovering,” below). Look at how much support you’re offering your body in return for the demands you’re placing on it. Consider adding more rest days or recovery workouts to your schedule.

Also, consider switching to a different fitness pursuit. If you were running, try stair-climbing. In the weight room, switch up your regular routine. “Mixing it up can often provide enough of a change to stimulate weight loss and increase strength,” says Sothern. “It’s like slapping your metabolism in the face and waking it up. It keeps your body adapting.”

How to come back: As long as you’ve stayed reasonably active, you’ll probably find that you can return to your original fitness pursuits without much trouble. Adding variety and following a training program that includes recovery can help improve your results.

Symptom No. 4:  Your workouts aren’t making you happy

What your body is trying to tell you: A negative mindset is often the first sign of underrecovery or overtraining. Keep overdoing it, and you can expect to see stress-hormone levels rise, testosterone (the hormone in charge of muscle building and repair) levels fall, and immunity plummet. You may feel tired as soon as you roll out of bed in the morning, or get more short-tempered as the day wears on.

What to do: If you have a bummed-out mindset — but without any physical symptoms — exercise at half your normal intensity and duration for one week. If your physical health is already suffering, you may need to stop exercising altogether for one or more weeks. If your physical symptoms have lasted for only three or four weeks, then a week off should do the trick. If you’ve been dragging around for months, take three weeks off, going for easy walks and doing yoga, tai chi, or light stretching when you feel like it.

Consume more brightly colored fruits and vegetables (at least eight to 10 servings a day); fatty cold-water wild-caught fish like salmon (at least twice a week); and healthy protein, such as poultry, grassfed meats, eggs, fish, and beans (at least twice a day). These foods will help bring down cortisol levels and reduce muscle inflammation, says Talbott.

How to come back: Exercise every other day at half your normal training volume. Do this for two to three weeks, and then begin adding intensity and duration to your workouts. Keep rest days a regular part of your schedule. For every three days of hard training, take off one or two days.

More Rest for the Weary

Don’t ignore your body’s requests for time out. Taking a break doesn’t necessarily relegate you to lying on the couch and vegging out. In fact, in most cases, you can and should continue to exercise — but at a lower intensity and duration.

Dixon says: “Recovery is not taking time off. In fact, some of my athletes seldom have a complete day of no exercise.”

The important thing is that you learn to observe your body’s signals and that you see your workouts in the context of your whole life. Exercising harder isn’t going to do your athletic capacity any good if it undermines your health. If it helps, think of your reduced training load as you would a trip to a spa: You’re doing something healthy for your body by giving it needed time to rejuvenate.

As a fitting conclusion to his year, skier Steve Waitt had his two all-time best races after his comeback.

“What I learned from that experience — taking a break from intense training and getting such good results — is a lesson I’ll benefit from for the rest of my athletic career,” says Waitt. “I just wish I hadn’t had to learn it the hard way.”


Disappearing Fitness

What can you expect to lose in case of an extended layup? According to exercise physiologist Melinda Sothern, PhD, here’s what goes on during a complete layoff from training.

If an illness, injury, or frenzied work schedule has kept you out of the gym, don’t despair. Do what you can, and trust your body to ask for what it needs. Your rate of repair depends in part on how depleted your system is to begin with, but unless you’re seriously ill, you’ll probably notice some improvement within just a few days of treating yourself more gently. The good news: Movement of any kind — even walking the dog — will help prolong your fitness.

Amount of time off: 48 hours
What happens: Catecholamine and other fat-burning-enzyme levels drop

What it means: Your body is burning fat at a slightly reduced level. Fit people burn fat at a higher rate, so this slight reduction probably won’t show up on your waistline, assuming you head back to the gym within the next few weeks.

Amount of time off: 72 to 120 hours
What happens: Insulin response drops

What it means: This hormone shuttles sugar into your muscle cells. Insulin works extremely well in fit individuals, so this slight drop is nothing to worry about.

Amount of time off: 1 week
What happens: Flexibility declines

What it means: Of all fitness variables — strength, endurance, and flexibility — flexibility is the hardest to maintain and easiest to lose, which is why it’s a good idea to stretch every day, even during a layoff.

Amount of time off: 2 weeks
What happens: Endurance and strength begin to drop

What it means: Once your endurance and strength begin to drop, they continue to do so rapidly. After three weeks of rest, you’ll have lost 50 percent of your strength and endurance. After four weeks, you’ll have lost 75 percent, and after six, you’ll have lost most everything.

is a former senior editor at Runner’s World, contributor to The Mind-Body Diabetes Revolution, and a freelance writer in Emmaus, Pa.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Newsletter Signup
Weekly Newsletter
Special Promotions