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The Importance of Rest & Recovery

Most people think that exercise builds muscles. And while over time, if all goes to plan the muscle does increase in its size and its strength... However during each and every exercise event the opposite process is actually occurring! With training, muscle fibers are broken down on a microscopic level. This creates small tears in the tissues. It isn’t until the body is rested and in recovery that it can repair, rebuild and strengthen. This is a process known as adaptation.

So what happens if this process does not happen? If rest and recovery are not permitted to occur there may be both short term and long term harm to the body.

What are the signs that rest and recovery is needed?

  • Muscle soreness: When engaging in physical activity, mild muscle soreness is to be expected. However, when muscle soreness is lasting upwards of 3 -4 days after physical activity or not resolving at all between engagements this is a sign that rest and recovery is needed.

  • Elevated resting heart rate: If your resting heart rate is above its normal value then it's a great indication that the body is in a state that requires rest.

  • General fatigue

  • Reduced level of motivation

  • Negative affect and mood

  • Higher stress levels than usual

  • Having a hard time falling and staying asleep

So if you are finding yourself in a place where the signs are present, how does one rest and recover?

Schedule a physical rest day! This means no physical activity in any form. Physical rest should be a non negotiable part of your routine either on a weekly or monthly basis as dependent upon your individual program. During physical rest days, the body has a chance to remove excess lactate ("exhaust") from the muscles. This helps to alleviate muscle pain and soreness. Physical rest can also give the bodies construction crew, or repair cells, a chance to mend the muscle tissue. This prevents the small, micro tears from accumulating!

And what about the fuel? Glycogen is a form of energy stored in muscles. Exercise depletes glycogen levels. This contributes to the muscle fatigue. Physical rest days allow the muscles to replenish their glycogen stores, reducing muscle fatigue and preparing the muscles for their next moment of action.

Sleep! Sleep! Sleep!

Sleep is an underrated and underutilized part of rest and recovery. While we sleep our body releases hormones and chemicals which naturally aid in repairing and rebuilding our tissues. In fact, it has been demonstrated that adolescent athletes who sleep less than 8 hours per night (on average) have an almost 2 times greater risk of injury than those who sleep more than 8 hours (Milewski et al. 2014). And further, studies have even suggested that sleep is important for bone health as they have linked sleep deprivation as a potential factor in the development of boney fractures (Finestone and Milgrom 2008).

Reduce mental stress!

Engaging in rest-based, relaxing activities helps to down-regulate the nervous system favouring the ‘rest and digest’ response or the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). The PSNS is one of the two divisions of the nervous system. The PSNS aids with dilating blood vessels. This helps to enhance blood flow to the area and accelerate the healing process.

So how can we support the PSNS in this?

  • Reduce stress: Stress can seem unavoidable for the most of us. However by limiting or reducing whatever stressors we can control, and changing our reactions to those we can’t, we can learn to manage our response to stress.

  • Consider mediation: Since it’s nearly impossible to remove all external stress, meditation can help to decrease our reactivity to stress we can’t control. Meditation teaches us to manage triggers, reduces our breathing rate, slows our heart, and decreases blood pressure: all signs of PSNS activation.

  • Slow your breathing: Intentionally slowing your breath lets your body know that everything is okay, as it activates the PSNS.

Consider active recovery!

Active recovery, also called active rest, is when you do some sort of movement that is less intense than your regular exercise days. In general, an active recovery day features "easy" workouts equivalent to no more than 60 to 70 percent of your maximum effort (low to moderate intensity). Working at a lower intensity helps assist recovery by increasing blood flow to your muscles and tissues. Giving your circulation a little boost helps get nutrients to your muscles so they can repair themselves. It can also help flush out waste products that built up during exercise that contribute to muscle damage and fatigue

What are some ideas to try in active recovery?

  • Engage in a leisurely walk - indoors or outdoors.

  • If you have access to a pool, go swimming!

  • Participate in a yoga session or gentle stretching.

  • Dabble in light resistance training for smaller, alternate muscle groups.

And if you are still not sure where to turn... If you are you looking for more information or a customized recovery program but don’t know where to start contact your local physiotherapist today. A physiotherapist can perform a thorough assessment and design a customized program for you! References: Finestone A, Milgrom C. How stress fracture incidence was lowered in the Israeli army: a 25-yr struggle. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Nov;40(11 Suppl):S623-9. Milewski MD, Skaggs DL, Bishop GA, Pace JL, Ibrahim DA, Wren TA, Barzdukas A. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. J Pediatr Orthop. 2014 Mar;34(2):129-33.


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