Scheduling some rest time into your exercise routine isn't being lazy it’s sensible – without it you’re more at risk of injury and possibly illness.
Why we all need down time
Most of us know how it feels to have pushed our body too far through exercise - the sore, aching, stiff muscles that can make everyday tasks like walking down the stairs or washing your hair, quite literally, a pain.
What causes sore muscles after exercise?
Experts call this Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS and the effects are usually felt between 24 -72 hours after exercising (and generally take around the same amount of time to ease). This occurs when exercise demands more from your muscles than they are used to and can cause micro tears to the muscle fibres. This might sound scary but this kind of micro-trauma can ultimately make them stronger as you then lay down new tissue to make the muscles better equipped to cope in the future.
This is why you need a day or two away from rigorous exercise for this recovery process to take place. Over-exercising can also run down your immune system - leaving you more vulnerable to infections like colds and flu - as your body just can't cope with the demands you're putting it under.
Tailoring your workout
Some workouts have recovery time designed in. For example, if you have worked your upper body one day, you are encouraged to rest those muscles for the following day or two, and either rest or work on your lower body instead. Runners often run most days, however. This is fine, but encourage recovery time by varying how you run - a leisurely paced jog one day interspersed with a speedier sprint every few days. Then take at least one day off to rest.
It's one thing to push yourself to achieve that little bit more to test your endurance, quite another to push yourself to the point of collapse or injury and scupper your chances of exercising again for a while.
How to recover
- Sleep - this is one of the most important things you can do to help your body bounce back from physical (and mental) stress. Ideally try to get between seven and 10 hours a night to give your body the chance to fully heal.
- Immerse yourself in warm water - the heat will relax your muscles (and you) and will help give you temporary relief from sore and tightened muscles. Add in some muscle-relaxing magnesium flakes which could help encourage a good night's sleep.
- A nutrient-dense diet - food will help restore your body's energy supply and tucking into muscle-maintaining protein and anti-inflammatory foods including omega-3 rich oily fish, avocados, fruit and leafy green vegetables will help your body to repair muscle tissue and boost your immunity.
- Drink more - keep your body well hydrated with around a litre to a litre and half of water daily. Drinking antioxidant-rich green tea has also been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect. There is evidence to show drinking fermented milk can both prevent and reduce muscle soreness. Try a fermented milk drink like kefir - available from health food shops. Research also shows that drinking cow's milk can similarly help with muscle recovery.
- Stretch yourself - nobody is saying you have to take to your bed and not move until your next work out or run but try a different gentler type of exercise like walking, swimming, yoga or Pilates in between times. If your muscles feel tight gentle stretches can also be soothing.
The psychological advantages of resting
Sometimes we are our own harshest critics - feeling guilty if we don't push ourselves fearing it will get in the way of our training schedule - but taking time out should help you recharge and then ultimately perform better.
If you're sacrificing everything for your exercise programme you're probably pushing yourself too hard. You are also far more likely to stick with it if you not relentlessly pushing yourself. Ultimately, exercising should be about pleasure not creating pain.