A basic idea of training is that when we stress the body with a moderate run, a strength workout, or a long bike ride, the body repairs and comes back even stronger. So more training stress or more training load or is a good thing with progressive training and at the end of a training cycle, we are stronger, faster, and can jump tall buildings with a single bound. Simple. Right?
It’s true that any general training is a stress to your body and this stress is a training stimulus we definitely want! What athletes often forget to take into account when looking at load and training stimulus is that it is not just workouts that create stress on the body and create the overall load.
It’s a delicate balance between training and all the other demands of your life and rest. As a coach, I try to get my athletes to look at how many hours they are working and how stressful is it, what is their social life like, how much are they juggling kids' schedules and things around home as well as the hours they are training. The more overall stress in your life including training stress on your body, the more chance there is of tipping over the edge toward over reaching, over training and/or injury. Remember, with rest you come back stronger but you must allow adequate rest for this to happen.
A Reason to Rest
This can be the tricky part especially for athletes who are very driven and/or who have a particular goal event. It’s very easy to get caught up in the training schedule and very focused on following a training plan. As coaches we emphasize that coaching has to be based on two-way communication and that coaching is an art and a science. Just because a workout is written into your schedule does not mean you should always do it.
Exhausted? Not sleeping well or cutting your sleep short again and again to fit it all in? Sore? These are all things that should be communicated and maybe your training schedule should be adjusted. We know many athletes who would rather not do this because they don’t want to back down on any workout. We get it! However, if the goal is to perform your best on the actual day of your goal race, taking some extra rest days if needed will certainly not hurt your overall training with that end goal in mind. Pulling you back from the edge of overreaching or over training is a true body check that an athlete needs to consider every day.
Check Engine Light
Your car has a "check engine light" to let you know when something needs attention. It would be nice if your body could have such a clear signal that something might be amiss and warrants more rest. It's up to you to check in with your body every day for these signals. Are you having little niggles starting to crop up? Does a shin hurt a little bit, have you developed a small pain in your hip, or is one hamstring tighter than the other? Do you notice these during a workout, later in the day after a workout or even the next day? Sure you can always excuse these little aches and pains with a reason why something is bothering you but the real consideration is that your body may just need some rest.
Are you extra tired and find yourself more irritable than usual? Even if you don’t feel you are doing too much remember our brains can override our bodies. Make sure you are taking the emotion out of the equation and really looking at what your body is saying. Are these little things a sign that your check engine light is on?
This can happen in day-to-day training or before or after an event. Clients often say they are doing an event for fun and don’t consider that a heavy load but, intensity matters! So even if you went into a race with the idea of just running it as a training run, you may need to back off for a few days at least to recover.
Another sign that you might need to take an extra rest day or need a little time off is flagging motivation. This issue is a bit more difficult to gauge because every athlete knows that in the middle of a heavy training cycle there are days where motivation lags. It’s hard to balance everything in your life and find the time and energy to train. Many athletes are very motivated so having a day when it's very hard to get in a workout (even an easy one) is a great indicator if we learn to see the red flag that it is.
Many athletes view themselves as lazy if they are not motivated but instead of jumping to that conclusion and beating yourself up, try to learn what questions you can ask yourself to really assess where you are. Check in and consider if you should push through or is your body physiologically tired.
Some ideas of questions to ask:
If your answers indicate that you are potentially on the brink of over reaching or over training, check in with how you physically feel and how training has been going. Feeling sore, not able to hit typical training paces and just general malaise are a good indicator that you should take some extra rest. Training schedules generally have built in cut back or easier weeks and often athletes find these weeks hard to follow. They add in just a few more miles here and there, another group exercise class or one more referee game because it doesn't feel like they are doing enough. Cut back weeks are planned to allow for recovery and adaptation and are key to helping you get to the next level. Adding more and more defeats the intention of a cut back week and can set you up for injury.
Although planned typically every 3-4 weeks, it is okay if you need one sooner than your plan calls for. If all indicators are that you need rest now, pull back on the week and take an earlier cut back week. Remember your coach is not in your body to make this important call. Only you can make that determination and stick to it.
A cut back or recovery week is not the time to feel guilty over missing a workout. Rather remind yourself that extra recovery can help when you really need it. This is not the time to do all the projects you have been waiting to do or the time to cut out calories thinking that since you aren’t burning as much you don’t need as many calories. Recovery is your body repairing itself to make you stronger and it requires extra fueling. If you aren’t hungry that can be another indicator of overtraining. And, don’t forget about the wondrous magic of sleep! Aim to get more quality sleep.
What about Active Recovery?
This is certainly a buzz phrase lately. It’s the idea that instead of just sitting on the couch, some very low intensity activity like an easy run, easy swim or bike can only aid recovery. It depends. Are you the type where you have to hit a certain pace even on a recovery day instead of listening to your body? Are you a person who can really judge your effort and knows how to define what very easy and easy pace is on a given day versus moderate? Are you okay jogging just a bit faster than a walk or will pace ego, time demands or boredom force you to keep a faster/more difficult pace or effort? If you can’t slow down, a complete rest day is probably the better choice!
Eye on the Prize - Remind yourself of the goal!
It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day aspects of training while forgetting what the bigger goal you are aiming for might be. The goal may be a certain time in an event, a certain distance or new skill or simply hitting those day to day workouts. Any and all goals are valid. Step back and try to take some emotion out of the question and ask yourself what is that bigger goal for you? Is this workout now worth maybe not hitting that goal in the long term if your body forces you take take weeks off because of injury?
Rest Day Brags
Athletes like bragging rights! We like the new trend of rest day brags and instead of only crowing with joy over a workout completed, be a good example and be proud of doing something other than a workout. Crow about sleeping in or doing some self-care. Proper attention to recovery and rest will further your training too!
An athlete truly in tune with their body will understand and applaud this difficult choice. What's your #restdaybrag?