By Steve Edwards
"Your body only gets stronger while at rest." –gym cliché
Rest is the ultimate conundrum for most Beachbody® customers. After all, it was too much rest in the first place that caused many of you to pick up the phone in the middle of the night to order a fitness product. Now, after six rigorous habit-changing weeks, you post on the Message Boards wondering what to do next, and the answer you get is to . . . rest! "Yikes," you think. "Isn't this going to start me on a slippery slope back to where I was?" Not exactly.
Rest is a vital part of any fitness program. Of course, you've got to do the work in order to validate this point, but lack of rest can be just as harmful as lack of exercise. While the latter leads to a much more obvious result, obesity, the former will lead to less noticeable--yet every bit as damaging—problems, such as chronic fatigue syndrome. These examples are the extreme ends of the spectrum. In the middle lies the far subtler and exceedingly frustrating condition, know as the plateau.
According to the bodybuilding duo once known as the Barbarian Brothers, "there is no such thing as overtraining. There is only undereating, undersleeping, and failure of will." While this somewhat absurd-sounding statement is purposefully silly, its backward nature actually makes it easier to understand. No matter how hard you workout, you need to eat right and sleep enough or it won't do you any good. Its use of vague terms, like "undereating" and "undersleeping" further drive home the point, because if you are training very hard, 8 hours of sleep and 3 squares a day might not cut it. You've got to give your body what it needs, which is simply enough food and enough rest to accomplish the job of helping the body recover from its latest workout. This may sound simple, but the difference is the fine line between what makes one athlete break down and another a champion.
For lay people it's simpler. We don't usually train right up to our body's physical limitations. We do for one session, perhaps, but not in headlong pursuit of maximizing our potential. Therefore, we have much more leeway when it comes to eating and sleeping. Chances are we can recover with 8 hours of sleep per night, in some cases even less. Unlike Lance Armstrong, we don't have to weigh each morsel we put into our mouth. There's a big difference between the Tour de France and trying to look decent at our class reunion. Yet, we do have limitations and our bodies work just that same as any athlete. This means we can't just keep increasing our workload. At some point, we must back off.
Recovery or Rest?
Our bodies repair breakdown any time they are at rest, but the most effective repair comes during deep sleep. But sleep alone is not the best regiment for recovery because long-term hard exercise can wear down muscles and connective tissues beyond the point where a night of sleep can do the trick. When you get this worn down, other types of active rest can enhance the body's natural ability to recover. These active rest sessions can be recovery movements, entire recovery workouts, or even an entire recovery cycle. By learning to incorporate recovery strategies into your workout program before a major breakdown (called cumulative microtrauma—overtraining) occurs, you can keep your progression curve pointing skyward.
Recovery exercise works in two ways. The obvious way is that it speeds actual recovery. But the other is that it helps you hedge on your rest. By actively adding recovery workouts, or cycles, to your training program you can cutoff overtraining at the pass. There's a saying in endurance circles that goes, "It's better to be 20% undertrained than 1% overtrained." By using recovery workouts as a standard part of your programs, you may lose a little up front speed on your results, but the flip side is that you are far less likely at every plateau.
The Meso-Cycle – At Beachbody.com, we always emphasize the importance of taking time off between workout programs. When was say "off," we don't mean do nothing. We mean that you should take a period of time (usually one to four weeks) where you don't do as much, or at least do something different, which is called a recovery cycle. Our newer programs, like Power Half Hour™, The Slim Series™, and Power 90®X all come with recovery cycles built in. This is mainly because they are more advanced. The more fit you are the harder you can push your body, resulting in more frequent recovery cycles being needed. A beginner may not need a recovery cycle for 90 days, whereas seasoned athletes usually take one every three to four weeks. That said, recovery after programs like P90 is still extremely important, regardless of your fitness level.
"Easy" Days – Over the course of any training program, you're likely to have days when you just don't have it. All of a sudden, you just can't seem to do what you were doing the week before. Instead of growing stronger, you're getting weaker. This is a signal that some overtraining has occurred. You need to back off. If you catch this early, it can often be remedied by a couple of "easy" days, where you do your workout at compromised intensity. These "active recovery" workouts will speed up recovery time and you'll often feel stronger at the end of the workout than you did at the beginning. The decision to have an easy day can be part of your plan, or it can happen spur of the moment. There are times you need to push through pain, but to try and push through true fatigue can result in compromising consecutive workouts. If you feel that you just don't have it, perhaps this means you should not push as much weight and make it through the workout. If you back off early, you'll usually feel energized the next day, resulting in harder work and more results.
Daily Recovery – Recovery isn't limited to cycles or workouts. Anytime that you aren't working out you are recovering. The way you go about your daily tasks can enhance your body's ability to recovery between workouts. Sleep and diet are the two main elements to proper recovery, but here are a few other tips to get the most out of your sedentary periods.
Take a load off. Too much time spent on your feet causes fatigue. If you work on your feet all day, never miss a chance to sit when you can. Like the great pitcher Satchel Paige said, "never stand when you can sit."
Elevate your legs. Even better than sitting is to lie down and elevate your legs above your body. This is more essential for those who work at a desk. Sitting for 8 hours will cause minor swelling in your legs. If you can take 5 minutes a couple of times per day to lay down and elevate your legs, it will improve your circulation and your recovery time.
Move. Also a tip for the desk jockey, moving around at regular intervals is essential to promote circulation. Make sure that you get up from your desk once per hour. Stand with your hands on your hips and do a few trunk rotations. Not only will you recover better but you'll feel better at work.
Hot/cold showers. A contrast shower after your workout will greatly improve your circulation and greatly speed up recovery time. Start by getting the water as hot as you can stand. Then, slowly cool it off until you can barely stand it. Repeat the process 4 to 6 times. It's the best post workout recovery tool that isn't diet related.
The bottom line is that your exercise program should not consider rest something you happen to get while sleeping, but an integral part of your "workout" program. By being proactive and plotting your recovery strategies in advance, you'll not only experience better results, but you'll feel better during the process.