Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rest and Why it Matters

I got more than a few sideways looks when I told people I was taking a week off in between WODs 1 and 2 of the sectionals. Even more when I said I'd be taking another one between weeks 5 and 6. The thing is, rest is one of those things that nobody gets enough of, and it's literally the thing that everyone needs to improve. All the training and practice is merely preparation for improvement. The actual gains you make come in your off time. Below is a brief, general article outlining why.

What Happens During Recovery?

Building recovery time into any training program is important because this is the time that the body adapts to the stress of exercise and the real training effect takes place. Recovery also allows the body to replenish energy stores and repair damaged tissues. Exercise or any other physical work causes changes in the body such as muscle tissue breakdown and the depletion of energy stores (muscle glycogen) as well as fluid loss.

Recovery time allows these stores to be replenished and allows tissue repair to occur. Without sufficient time to repair and replenish, the body will continue to breakdown from intensive exercise. Symptoms of overtraining often occur from a lack of recovery time. Signs of overtraining include a feeling of general malaise, staleness, depression, decreased sports performance and increased risk of injury, among others.

Short and Long-Term Recovery

Keep in mind that there are two categories of recovery. There is immediate (short-term) recovery from a particularly intense training session or event, and there is the long-term recovery that needs to be build into a year-round training schedule. Both are important for optimal sports performance.

Short-term recovery, sometimes called active recovery occurs in the hours immediately after intense exercise. Active recovery refers to engaging in low-intensity exercise after workouts during both the cool-down phase immediately after a hard effort or workout as well as during the days following the workout. Both types of active recovery are linked to performance benefits.

Another major focus of recovery immediately following exercise has to do with replenishing energy stores and fluids lost during exercise and optimizing protein synthesis (the process of increasing the protein content of muscle cells, preventing muscle breakdown and increasing muscle size) by eating the right foods in the post-exercise meal.

This is also the time for soft tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments) repair and the removal of chemicals that build up as a result of cell activity during exercise.

Long-term recovery techniques refer to those that are built in to a seasonal training program. Most well-designed training schedules will include recovery days and or weeks that are built into an annual training schedule. This is also the reason athletes and coaches change their training program throughout the year, add cross training, modify workouts types, and make changes in intensity, time, distance and all the other training variables.

Adaptation to Exercise

The Principle of Adaptation states that when we undergo the stress of physical exercise, our body adapts and becomes more efficient. It’s just like learning any new skill; at first it’s difficult, but over time it becomes second-nature. Once you adapt to a given stress, you require additional stress to continue to make progress.

There are limits to how much stress the body can tolerate before it breaks down and risks injury. Doing too much work too quickly will result in injury or muscle damage, but doing too little, too slowly will not result in any improvement. This is why personal trainers set up specific training programs that increase time and intensity at a planned rate and allow rest days throughout the program.

Sleep Deprivation can Lower Performance

In general, one or two nights of poor or little sleep won't have much impact on performance, but consistently getting inadequate sleep can result in subtle changes in hormone levels, particularly those related to stress, muscle recovery and mood. While no one completely understands the complexities of sleep, some research indicates that sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), decreased activity of human growth hormone (which is active during tissue repair), and decreased glycogen synthesis

Other studies link sleep deprivation with decreased aerobic endurance and increased ratings of perceived exertion.

Balance Exercise with Rest and Recovery.

It is this alternation of adaptation and recovery that takes the athlete to a higher level of fitness. High-level athletes need to realize that the greater the training intensity and effort, the greater the need for planned recovery. Monitoring your workouts and paying attention to how your body feels and how motivated you are is extremely helpful in determining your recovery needs and modifying your training program accordingly.


  1. You're one of my heroes Blair, period.

  2. Blair,

    As someone who is generally used to multiple WODs per day, what type of recovery activities do you do or recommend over the course of a day?

    I'm just starting on the CrossFit Endurance programming and have found it difficult to feel fresh on the 2nd workout.

    Lastly, awesome blog. I've been a lurker for long, catching up on all things anywherefit from my RSS reader.


  3. @ Richard- looking forward to a california reunion this summer pal

    @ Sheikk- recovery during the course of a day is mostly about nutrition for me. if i eat the right things before and after my workouts im usually okay for the first 2 WODs. the evening WOD is always a bit tough to get up for, but knowing that it's the last thing i have to do that day and that ill be resting the entire following day reassures me that i can handle it. the endorphin rush i get after an evening workout is also stronger than at any other time of day, so i look forward to that.

  4. Hi Blair,

    I have a few questions if that is OK.

    How often do you train during the week, how often do you take rest days and at what time do you workout (around what time are your morning, afternoon and evening workouts?)

  5. Ps. I've been following your blog since I found out about the Anywherefit trip in Iceland and I've been hooked ever since :)

  6. Arni, thanks for the nice words about the blog. I train 9 sessions per week on average (3 on monday-wednesday-friday), and sometimes an extra session on Saturday depending if there's a competition or a previous plan to do a group session that weeekend. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends I rest. Morning WODs are usually between 6.30-7.30, afternoons between 1.00-3.00, and evenings between 5.00-6.30.

  7. Hi Blair,

    Your blog is pure gospel and I really needed to read this article b/c I do not know how to rest. I feel guilty if I do not workout every single day usually multiple times. But that is wrong and I know it.

    I am a Junior in College and am looking to study abroad next year. Since you have been all over the world, I was wondering what are some of the top countries that you have been to that would be good places to study in?


  8. hey Ben, tough request my man. i'd say if i were judging on natural beauty there's no place better than switzerland in europe. incredible landscape and opportunity for outdoor fitness. The cities i most enjoyed were prague, amsterdam, copenhagen, and paris, but really you can't go wrong anywhere over there. i'd say stick to northern europe if english is your only language, otherwise go where the program is best. it will be a blast regardless.

  9. Thanks for the reply Blair! Do you do gymnastics x3, Heavy lifting x3 and then wod/conditioning x3 per week then?

    I'm asking all these questions because I've been training 6 times per week, once per day and sundays as rest and I'm thinking that I might need some change in my programing :)

  10. Thanks for the advice, Blair. Enjoy your time off!

  11. Arni, you got it. 3x for each with different emphasis throughout the week.