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Are Exercise Recovery Days Important?

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An Asian woman lying down in the training gym

Most people want to get stronger, improve fitness and feel their best. But how do you know if you’re training too much? Just how important is recovery? Do you need to take rest days, or can you simply alternate your exercise routine?

“The whole concept of exercise is to stress or challenge your body and then let it recover. As you stress your body it should adapt. As long as you do that repetitively and recover in between, you’re going to improve strength and fitness,” says University Hospitals pediatric sports medicine specialist Laura Goldberg, MD. “But if you don’t allow recovery, you’ll increase the risk of injury and decrease immune function, putting you at risk of illness.”

Sore and Tired?

If you have muscle soreness and fatigue that doesn’t go away, it’s a sure sign you’re overtraining. This means you’re challenging your body but not giving it time to recover. To improve, there needs to be a repeating balance: challenge, recovery, challenge, recovery.

Ways to Recover

It’s important to change your exercise routine or intensity and rest completely from exercise. But Dr. Goldberg says there’s more to it than that.

Cross-training. “It doesn’t matter whether you run, swim, lift weights or do yoga. If you do the same thing every day, you won’t improve or get stronger. The body likes exercise confusion. You want to challenge the body in different ways,” says Dr. Goldberg.

Cross-training is a great way to redirect your training for recovery. Cross-training allows previously targeted muscles to recover, while different muscle groups are challenged. If you’re a runner, alternate with a walk, bike, swim or yoga on some days. If you weight train or your go-to is yoga, ramp things up with an active full-body exercise. Hooked on one sport? Be sure to focus on other training during and after the sport season ends.

Reduced intensity. Another effective way to actively recover is to decrease your exercise intensity. You can do this by reducing the distance or speed of a run, swim or bike ride. For weight training and standard floor exercises, reduce the load with lighter weights, slower and/or fewer repetitions.

Total rest. Dr. Goldberg believes it’s absolutely critical to have a complete rest day every 7-10 days. Sometimes your body will signal it needs rest sooner, but it’s better to plan it than need it.

Relieve pressure. Massage increases blood flow, helps remove lactate and decreases muscle soreness. But too much massage can break down tissue and have the opposite effect, decreasing blood flow and increasing soreness. Another option is to use compression wear such as sleeves and socks. These squeeze and release the muscles to get rid of lactate and metabolic by-products and decrease soreness.

Water (hydro) therapy. Good research has shown that cold water bath immersion and alternating hot and cold water temperatures can boost blood flow and improve muscle soreness, promoting recovery.

Rest, Sleep, Hydration, Nutrition and Stress: It All Affects Recovery

Recent research shows that nutrition needs after exercising are different for men and women. For optimum muscle repair and building, women need protein and carb intake within 30 minutes after exercise, while men have up to 1-1/2 hours to get it.

Quality sleep is also essential to how the body functions and heals itself.

“If you‘re balancing training and recovery, you’ll feel generally motivated and good. The signs of overtraining include increased resting heart rate, decreased performance, a lack of motivation to exercise, decreased appetite, sleep disturbance, muscle soreness and exhaustion,” says Dr. Goldberg.

“These are signs that you need to step back and assess if you’re properly recovering. It may not be that you’re exercising too much; it may just be that you’re not adequately recovering. The balance of stress and recovery is critical. It’s not always necessary to curtail your exercise – maybe you just need to increase your recovery.”

Related Links

At University Hospitals, our fellowship-trained sports medicine specialists, primary care doctors, nutritionists, sleep experts and other healthcare professionals ensure the very best sports medicine care for active people.

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