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Why you need to rest to achieve your fitness goals

Lack of adequate rest can be a serious obstacle for your fitness. Lounge speaks to trainers to find out how you can enjoy your gains and not get injured

You run the risk of fatigue or injury if you don't rest enough.
You run the risk of fatigue or injury if you don't rest enough. (Istockphoto)

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It is a great thing to keep your eyes on the prize and work hard towards achieving your health and fitness goals. But working hard constantly, without a break, could end up not only delaying reaching your goals but also could cause you actual physical harm. The other factor that plays an important part in the body’s recovery is sleep. Research has shown that those who don’t get adequate sleep are at a greater risk of injury while performing athletic activities or exercise. 

It’s usually newbies who make this mistake the most say fitness coaches and medical experts. Those who don’t rest enough are, in effect, not paying heed to the signals their bodies send—a surefire way of picking up an injury. Pune-based ultra-runner Murli Pillai, 39, in the initial days of his running journey, used to run every single day till he experienced terrible pain in his shins that he just couldn’t ignore.  Pillai, who just completed the Comrades ultra in South Africa this year, learned from his mistake and started including rest days in his training. This has helped him become a much faster runner, he can also cover longer distances now. 

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Everyone, especially professional athletes, has rest days carefully scheduled into their training plan. This is all about letting your body recover fully before taking on the rigours of professional sport. The Commonwealth Games steeplechase silver medal winner Avinash Sable used to break up his training week into 12 sessions between Monday and Saturday; three of these were set aside for rest and Sunday was a day for complete rest. 

All professional athletes also have an “off season” when they take up to eight weeks of extended rest before returning for the new season. Experienced recreational athletes such as runners, triathletes and cyclists also carefully work rest days into their training plan without which they can neither go faster nor farther without risking injury. 

These rest days are just as important and integral to one’s progress as are workouts and training, says Gagan Arora, fitness coach and founder of Delhi’s Kosmic Fitness. “Without the rest days, you would be overloading your body continuously and it will just break down one day,” warns Arora. And that’s exactly what happened to Pillai in his early days of running. 

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The rest days help your muscles, nerves and bones rebuild and recover, explains Pawan Jani, coach and founder-director of Chakra Fitness in Pune. “Working out, especially resistance and weight training, stresses your body’s muscle, tissue, nervous and bone systems and causes microscopic tears in the muscles. The rest days allow your body to repair and recover. It is this repair that leads to gains in strength and endurance. That makes rest days just as important as exercise,” says Jani. “It is a critical part of progress, regardless of your fitness level or sport. Skipping rest days can lead to overtraining or burnout and that would delay the process of achieving your goals.”

When you train, and you make your muscles resilient to fatigue, while you gain strength and lose fat. But it is while you are resting, that all the favourable adaptations in the body happen, says Arora. “How quickly you recover from a workout denotes how fit you are,” he says. Ideally, you need to factor in two rest days per week, out of which one can be an active recovery day. Active recovery is when you do an activity that you normally don’t do through the week so that a different set of muscles and movements are employed. For example, if you do weight training and running through the week, you could go on a cycle ride or swimming or do yoga for active recovery once a week. On top of this, you need at least one day of complete rest per week. 

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Three factors can help you analyse whether your body is still recovering. “If your resting heart rate is five or more beats higher than your usual then you are lacking in recovery. If you are sore even after three days of a workout or training session, you are pushing too hard and not recovering adequately. Finally, if your sleep is disturbed you are overreaching,” says Arora. 

Apart from inadequate rest, disturbed sleep not only leaves you more susceptible to injuries and poor performance but leads to psychological problems. Losing as little as just an hour’s sleep could trigger asocial behaviour, a new study has found. Published in Plos Biology, the paper is called Sleep Loss Leads To The Withdrawal Of Human Helping Across Individuals, Groups, And Large-scale Societies. “Inadequate sleep represents a significant influential force determining whether humans choose to help one another,” the researchers find. The team suggest that chronic sleep deficit could harm social bonds and compromise the altruistic instincts that shape society. They noted that a bad night appeared to dampen activity in the part of the brain that encouraged social behaviour. 

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

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