A few years ago, I was training for a marathon. It was a dream of mine – a huge bucket list goal. I was so focused on achieving that 26.2 miles that I totally forgot to plan for adequate rest and recovery.
This was a recipe for disaster.
The week I hit mile 18 (the farthest I’d ever run in my life), I tore my meniscus. The injury was entirely preventable. I had simply ignored the fundamental rules of training.
Athletes love training, and we thrive off the adrenaline rush a good workout gives us. Whether it’s the “Runner’s High” or hitting that personal best on the squat rack – nothing compares. Yet, in reality, the “no days off” mantra is not only counter-productive to performance gains, it’s also dangerous and can result in serious injury.
Key to achieving optimal performance – no matter the sport – is proper rest and recovery. Without it, you are merely wasting the valuable energy and effort you put into your workouts. Studies clearly show that athletes, recreational to elite, must incorporate sufficient rest and recovery into their training schedules. Otherwise, it directly impacts their performance and, more importantly, can have serious consequences on their mental and physical well-being.
So, what does one mean by proper rest and recovery? Let’s look at some key components.
Athletes of any fitness level require at least seven to ten hours of sleep in order to sufficiently repair and regenerate muscle tissue. Adequate sleep supports cognitive function, your ability to assess, make split-second decisions and react, all of which are critical faculties required in sports. The effects of sleep restriction are particularly harmful to athletes because it compromises hormone function and raises blood cortisol levels, which can lead to unwanted weight gain and performance issues, sabotaging even the best diet and training plans. Skip the late night show and get some much-needed rest. Trust me, you’ll notice a difference.
To maintain healthy mental and physical function, athletes need to consume 16-24 oz of water per every pound of body weight lost from exercise. Along with water, the replacement of essential electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium, are required. Inadequate hydration in athletes directly affects performance and can also lead to serious health issues, even death in some cases. Steer clear of sugary sports drinks. Electrolyte water is a much healthier option. Better yet, make your own by adding a dash of salt and citrus juice to water.
The dynamic role optimal nutrition plays in sports performance in undeniable. Endurance sports require constant replenishment of glycogen (carbohydrate) stores in order to function. Improper fueling is a major reason why runners “bonk” (hit the wall). Strength training athletes need less glycogen, yet carbohydrates are the cornerstone to muscle development. All athletes need protein in order to repair muscles (small tissue tears). The ideal carbohydrate to protein ratio for post-exercise meals is 4:1. Some healthy recovery food options include PB&J with a banana, yogurt and fruit, or chocolate milk.
Everyday athletes are more prone to overtraining because we exercise 5-7 times a week alongside working full-time jobs. However, this cycle of mental and physical overexertion can seriously compromise your health causing, amongst other things, fatigue, injuries and decreased performance. Rest days, completely free of any physical activity – no Bikram yoga, arduous hikes or pickup games of basketball – is vital to peak athletic performance. Your body needs rest days to fully recover…period. Schedule in some mental downtime also – read a book, watch a movie, or (my personal favorite) take a nap!
Athletic recovery is also enhanced with the addition of various therapeutic methods. Foam rolling helps increase your range of motion while simultaneously diminishing the residual effects of muscle soreness (the dreaded DOMS). Hot and cold therapy inhibits pain and soothes overworked muscles. Cold therapy is a favorite option for athletes wanting to minimize muscle spasms and reduce swelling. Whereas hot therapy is used to increase blood flow, promoting deep tissue healing. Sports massages are known to decrease inflammation while increasing blood circulation, enabling speedier recovery that boosts future performance gains.
After tearing my meniscus and not being able to run for four weeks, I certainly learned my lesson. During my downtime, I fully rested, ate healthy and incorporated a few recovery techniques to aid in the healing process. On my first day back from injury, I ran my fastest mile since high school (under seven minutes).
If that’s not a true testament to the importance of rest and recovery, I don’t know what is.
Rachael is an accomplished athlete, mother and writer. She holds a PhD in History from the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Besides a passion for health and fitness, her interests include community service, reading, traveling, and pretty much anything adventurous, epic and adrenaline-inspiring.