When it comes to fitness, we’ve been conditioned to think that rest is weakness. But the science says something very different. Here, Jess Ennis-Hill gives you permission to take a day off – and we’re not arguing with her…
Reviewed by: Dr Emma Ross
As a society, we’re constantly being pushed to go further, do more, train harder, go faster, with a quick scroll of social media’s most popular ‘motivational quotes’ backing this up: “On good days, work out. On bad days, work out harder,” say. Or, “The only bad workout is the one that didn’t happen.” With this type of mantra being liked and shared all over the place, it’s no wonder that the idea of taking your foot off the pedal is hard to accept.
However, the science tells us that rest is actually beneficial for our health and can actually help to make us fitter. “When you exert or push yourself through fitness, your muscles sustain microscopic damage – known as microtears,” says Jennis physiologist, Dr Emma Ross. “It sounds dramatic, but these microtears give a signal to our muscle tissue to replenish, and it’s this process that enables them to build back bigger and better than before. Crucially, this means that you only reap the benefits of training during the recovery period,” says Emma.
How rest days work
Importantly, if you keep your foot on the accelerator every single day, you don’t give your muscles the chance to repair, your performance can level out or go backwards, plus you increase the risk of injury to your overworked muscles and joints.
Now we’re onboard with the theory, let’s look at how rest days work in practice. “If you’re engaging in light activity like walking every day, there’s no need to take 24 hours off. In fact, staying active is recommended,” says Emma.
“However, if you’ve been doing tougher workouts like HIIT, strength and so on, you’ll need to schedule regular rest days, about every three to five days,” she explains. The most you should do on these days – if anything – is some low-intensity exercise, stretching or soothing yoga.
“If you’re specifically experiencing the aching effects of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), some light exercise might be helpful, but yet again, keep the intensity low.”
When rest is best
Rest days are particularly important if you’ve been under undue stress, slept badly for a number of nights or are feeling unwell. This is because increased stress and poor sleep can affect growth hormone activity and glycogen synthesis (both essential to tissue repair). This means that even if you do manage to drag yourself to training, your muscles won’t be able to mend and grow stronger as they usually would. Worse, you may end up undoing all the training gains you’ve made, so you’re definitely better off catching up with your rest than your reps.
You only reap the benefits of training during the recovery period
Embracing a change of pace
Top athletes recognise the benefits of mixing it up, and Jess Ennis-Hill is no exception. “Back in the early days of my training, I used to think that I had to train flat out every day and would beat myself up if I was too tired to do it. It wasn’t until I was forced to slow down because of injury that I realised the importance of respecting rest and also the benefits physically and psychologically.”
“When you programme in rest days, you really notice the strength gains you get as a result,” she continues. “They also change your attitude to working out. Rather than dragging yourself to a session, if you have had a rest day you actually look forward to it – and you often end up pushing yourself more than you would if you entered the session with a build-up of a fatigue in your legs.”
If you’re new to fitness or just getting back in the routine again, having permission to rest means you’re less likely to get discouraged and give up the first time you oversleep your alarm.
For experienced fitness enthusiasts, factoring in rest days means you’re more likely to see sustained improvement, rather than falling victim to overuse injuries , such as muscle sprains, joint damage or stress fractures. Plus, you’ll almost certainly return to sessions with a new sense of purpose and enthusiasm.
Signs you need to take a break
Our bodies are pretty good at telling us what they need. It’s just that we’re often too busy to see the signs. A dip in performance, low energy and tiredness are some of the more obvious ones. Less obvious is an inability to drift off – despite being tired – with this attributed to higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone). Aches or pains beyond what you’d usually expect could also be a sign that your muscles haven’t recovered.
Adding rest to your regime
Rather than waiting until your body breaks down, it’s best to get on the front foot and plan in some time out. Warming down, replenishing with fluids and taking a rest immediately after a big session are important, but rest also has a role in your weekly, monthly or seasonal schedule.
When you programme in rest days, you really notice the strength gains you get as a result
“The rest you need will vary depending on the kinds of training you’re doing, as well as how intensively you’re working different muscle groups,” says Emma, who adds that your age, level of fitness and hormonal balance will also have an impact.
As a general rule, however, your muscle groups will need at least 48 hours to recover. To keep it simple, Jennis Challenges are designed to work different areas of your body each day so that you don’t overly tax one area. They also have total rest days strategically planned in for you.
Making the most of your rest day
So, what should you do on your rest day? While there’s no ‘right’ way to rest, just as there’s no single way to exercise, there are a few pointers you can follow.
Provided you’re feeling fit and healthy, it can be beneficial to enjoy some kind of low-impact movement, such as walking, gentle yoga or recovery stretches. Ultimately though, if all you want to do is catch up on that all-important sleep (or Netflix), that’s ok too. Give yourself license to step away from those dumbbells and you’ll be surprised by how eager you are to get back on.
Your body, your rules
So there you have it: the ultimate assurance that even athletes take a break – and maybe those ‘motivational’ quotes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be after all.
A note from Jennis: If you’re finding it hard to take a break from exercise, despite pain and exhaustion, you may need to speak to your GP to find the right support.