Why Workout Recovery Days Are Essential for Optimal Fitness

The key to getting stronger, faster, or fitter is giving yourself time to recover properly between workouts. Learn how to leverage your rest days to reach your fitness goals.

woman tying shoe in gym

Building fitness is a two-step process: Work out, then recover. Tear things down, then give them time and resources to rebuild, better than before.

The first step is probably obvious. But the second step, not so much. Many people simply trust in the recovery superpowers of a foam roller and a day spent lounging on the couch. But there’s more to recovery than poking and prodding your muscles — and certainly more than doing nothing at all. A lot more.

Recovery isn’t an afterthought,” says strength-and-conditioning coach Joel Jamieson, CSCS, go-to trainer for Navy SEALs and pro athletes, creator of the Morpheus recovery system and BioForce coaching certification, and the designer of the LT Method, Life Time’s personal-training program.

Exercise without giving thought to what you’ll do afterward, he says, and “you’ll shortchange the results of all the hard work you put in. It’s as important or more important than the training itself.”

Maximizing your recovery will ensure you’re optimizing the benefits of your fitness efforts.

Good Stress Gone Bad

Stress gets a bad rap. But the right type of stress — and the right amount of it — is essential for health, well-being, and survival. On a physiological level, this is because your autonomic nervous system, which controls your body’s many involuntary functions, operates best in a dynamic balance between its two major branches:

  • The parasympathetic rest-and-digest system calms you down, slows your heart rate, and repairs and rebuilds damaged tissues.
  • The sympathetic fight-or-flight system revs you up, prepares you for intense physical action, raises blood sugar, and breaks down tissues.

Moving between these two opposing systems, the autonomic nervous system keeps you alive: “Day to day, it keeps your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion going,” explains Jamieson.

Ideally, you want to spend most of your time in a parasympathetic state — resting, digesting, and repairing — with occasional spikes of sympathetic stress: running, lifting, pushing yourself mentally and physically. And that’s just what a good workout provides.

“During exercise, you’re causing muscle and other tissues to break down,” says exercise physiologist Pat Davidson, PhD. When you take time off between workouts to fuel the body with rest and good food, he says, “a workout signals your body to supercompensate by growing and getting stronger.”

Fail to work out hard enough or ­often enough and your body stops adapting. Over time, you’ll lose strength, endurance, and fitness.

Conversely, when you work out too hard, too long, and too often, your tissues break down faster than your body can repair them. You get sore, overworked, and, potentially, injured. That’s the condition we associate with “feeling stressed”: Your heart rate skyrockets, sleep is difficult, and digestion and mood are compromised.

“You don’t want to get stuck in a chronic sympathetic state, or you’ll never recover,” warns Jamieson.

Ignore these symptoms for too long and you risk throwing your system into an extreme and unhealthy parasympathetic state known as overtraining. True overtraining is rare (it typically occurs only in very dedicated long-distance athletes) and takes many months to develop — but when it does, the symptoms are severe: extreme fatigue, injury, and depression.

Instead of a racing heart, now, no matter how fast you run or how hard you lift, your heart rate stays low, and athletic performance plummets. “You’ll feel fatigue, lack of motivation, increased hunger, decreased sex drive,” says Jamieson.

Sympathetic and parasympathetic states need each other to maintain balance — and to shift easily from one state to the other.

CSCS, is an Experience Life contributing editor.

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