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Underrated and underutilized: how rest days transform training

When you’re trying to hit your physique goals, “taking a day off” may be difficult to do, but it’ll give your body essential time to recover, rejuvenate, and reduce the chance of injury. Athletes (particularly elite ones) often need even more rest and recovery than the average desk jockey.

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We all need sleep in order to stay healthy, but the body also uses that time to build muscle, process and store the day’s events in your memory, and let your organs recover. When you’re working out hard, you need to allow your body to rest so it can regenerate and be ready to keep going for the next training session.

The importance of rest days.

Give your body a break if you want to see improvements. During a recovery or rest day, your body replenishes muscle glycogen (energy stores) and uses that time for body tissues to repair. According to the American Council on Exercise, when you’re allowing for adequate recovery, “higher training volumes and intensities are possible without the detrimental effects of overtraining.” Simply put, giving your body time to recoup allows it to renew its energy systems so you can keep training at maximum levels. Jot down some activities to enjoy on your rest day, like walking with a friend, stretching, yoga, a Pilates class, a leisurely bike ride, or playing with your kids in the park. You might want to experiment with doing a longer meditation session on your rest days, too.

How much recovery do you need?

Some athletes might find it helpful to monitor workouts with training logs and rate how they feel after each workout, as well as hunger levels throughout the day, sleeping patterns, and how rested they feel when they wake up. Just like Headspace logs your meditation sessions, using this kind of fitness journal can help you track how the body feels after a workout. This will help determine recovery needs and whether or not your training program needs to be modified, suggests Michigan State University Extension.

Why athletes might need more sleep.

You’ve probably heard that we all should be getting between seven to nine hours of quality sleep for optimal health, but sleep needs are individual and you may need to increase those hours as training intensifies. When you’re taxing your body through mental or physical stress, the body releases adenosine, a chemical that helps create sleepiness, and you’ll build up more of a drive to sleep. Adenosine levels are higher when they are preparing the body for sleep and they “turn off” cells that are important for wakefulness. During sleep, the body’s cells are less active and adenosine levels drop, eventually leading to wakefulness, according to a Harvard magazine article.

Small sleep losses will slow you down.

While an hour or two of sleep loss here and there throughout the week probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, those deprived hours add up—your ability to function suffers as if you haven't slept at all for a day or two. Not only should you aim for at least seven hours a night, but getting quality deep sleep is what your body relies on in order to release growth hormones that boost lean muscle mass and repair cells and tissues. Your brain needs sleep in order to help you remember and process what you learned so you can build upon that. If you’re working on a new sprinting technique or perfecting your clean and press, sleep can help improve the physical and mental memory those tasks require.

What to eat before sleep.

You already know how eating the right foods affects your training, but it’s important to keep in mind how significant the timing of macronutrients (carbs, protein, fats) are in the body. A 2012 study published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise looked at how casein protein consumed before bed improved protein synthesis and overnight recovery in athletes. The 16 male study subjects consumed about 20 grams of protein soon after their evening resistance-training workout, but some of the participants also drank a beverage with an additional 40 grams of casein protein 30 minutes before sleep. The results found that participants who consumed protein immediately before sleep effectively digested and absorbed the protein, stimulating muscle protein synthesis and boosting postexercise overnight recovery.

Give your body time to cool down.

Exercising too close to bedtime can interfere with your body temperature’s natural drop to prepare for sleep, and could keep you awake for longer than you’d like. While many sleep experts may recommend a warm shower before bed to help prepare your body to cool down afterward, if you just finished a HIIT workout or long run soon before turning in, that training session could thwart the physiological process of your body decreasing its temperature to prepare for sleep. Make sure your room is set at a temperature that feels cool to you—bedroom temperatures should be between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

This piece was produced in partnership with Nike Training Club. To get started on your fitness journey, download the NTC app here.

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