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Why rest days are vital to achieve optimal fitness

Don't let your enthusiasm get the better of you and include rest days into your training schedule. If you don't, then you might face injury and fatigue

You need to include rest days in your training schedule for the best results.
You need to include rest days in your training schedule for the best results. (Unsplash)

Rest? It may not sound right when talking about fitness, but that doesn’t make it any less important. The fact is that to reach your fitness goals, you need to take a break and rest, regularly.

All athletes, no matter what the sport, carefully plan rest days into their daily and weekly training schedules. At the highlands of Iten in Kenya, where some of the world’s fastest runners train through the year, every runner—professional or recreational—has a routine. They start the day early with a running workout, followed by breakfast, rest, lunch, a second round of training or cross-training, an evening snack, some relaxed socialisation, dinner and then early to bed. Recreational runner Shailja Singh, 41, who attended a running camp in Iten a few years ago, speaks admiringly of this routine. After returning from her camp, Singh, who is also an age category podium finisher in multiple races including the Tata Mumbai Marathon, started including up to two rest days a week in her training calendar.

Rest days help you improve your performance

Planned rest days are as important as planned workout days, says fitness coach Gagan Arora, founder of Delhi’s Kosmic Fitness. “If you don’t strategise and incorporate rest days into your training schedule, you would be overloading your body continuously and it will just break down one day,” he says. Rest days help your muscles, nerves, bones, and all of your physical systems rebuild and recover, says Pawan Jani, coach and founder-director of Chakra Fitness Community in Pune.

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“Working out, especially resistance and weight training, stresses your body’s systems and causes microscopic tears in your muscles. Rest days allow your body to recover and repair. They are just as important as exercise,” says Jani, adding that a successful fitness regimen isn’t complete without rest days. “It’s a critical part of progress, regardless of your fitness level or sport.”

Singh says that ever since she started including rest days in her schedule, not only has she felt stronger and fresher more regularly and consistently, but it’s also made her a faster runner. “I have at least one rest day per week and two at times depending on how close I am to a race. The rest day not only lets me return to training stronger and fresher but I am also a lot more focused and happier. The rest days let me not only get the best out of my training but also enjoy it more,” she says.

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Skipping rest days can lead to overtraining or burnout and that would delay the process of achieving your goals, warns Jani. You train and you make your muscles resilient to fatigue, gain strength and lose fat, but that’s just one part of the story. All favourable adaptations in the body happen once you have ceased to be active and your body starts to recover from a training session, says Arora. “How quick you can recover from a workout denotes how fit you are,” he adds.

Three factors can help you analyse whether your body is still recovering. “Check your resting heart rate; if it is five or more beats higher than your usual then you lack recovery. Second, if you are sore even after three days of an activity you are pushing too hard and not recovering sufficiently. Finally, if your sleep is disturbed you are overreaching,” says Arora.

Rest days keep you injury-free

Rest days help you avoid injury, and they also keep you physically and mentally strong, besides improving your performance, say both Arora and Jani. “Optimal rest and nutrition are important to improve on your fitness level and perform better with each consecutive workout. If you are not well rested you might end up picking up an injury or just lose the motivation to perform training sessions,” says Arora.

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While Arora is of the opinion that one rest day per week is ideal for most active individuals, Jani suggests up to two rest days per week scheduled appropriately.Scheduling rest days depend on several factors. “The rule of the thumb should be to not slot two hard days together. If you wish to do two back-to-back sessions make sure a hard session is followed by somewhat easy workout,” suggests Arora. He adds that more experienced athletes and fitness enthusiasts require less time to recover between sessions. This allows them to get away with one rest day per week or even one in two weeks. The point is, they know how to mix their workouts with active rest days. On the other hand, beginners should stick to light activity if indulging in five to six sessions a week. However, if engaging in any rigorous activity like strength training with weights, running, kick-boxing or cycling, one should start with just two or three sessions per week, says Arora.

Anyone who’s seriously into fitness or pursues a sport knows how important it is to rest for the best results. However, beginners often tend to let their enthusiasm push rest days out of their training schedule. This, as we have found out, is a mistake. Because without rest there is no recovery and without recovery there can be no fitness, just fatigue.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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