Rest for the Weary

Unquestionably, one of the hardest things for an endurance athlete to do is rest. It is much more satisfying to go out to the track and hammer sets of high intensity 400s, or do long slow distance runs in the heat (sometimes called long slow torture). The mind set is that pushing yourself harder makes you stronger and faster. In truth it does, but only if there is sufficient rest to allow for recovery. This second part of the equation is sometimes forgotten, leading to a rest/recovery imbalance (RRI) and -- ultimately -- persistent fatigue, injury, or illness.

Rest is what the athlete does, and comes in two forms, passive and active. Passive rest is doing nothing, and includes the time between workouts (sleep, etc...), or days off. Active rest is defined as very light exercise, often with stretching, which doesn’t result in damage to the muscles. An example of this is a 30 minute easy spin on the bike. The activity should be low heart rate (i.e., below the lower cutoff for aerobic work). The goal is to get a little increased blood flow to the muscles, and to prevent too much “stiffness” from setting in.

Recovery is what the body does to repair the damage from a tough workout. The soreness that one feels for a day or two after hard exercise is due to damaged muscle cells, not lactic acid as is commonly believed. Immediately after exercise, the body sets to work to repair the damage. The repair process involves an inflammatory response, and mediators of inflammation are what stimulate nerve endings resulting in soreness or pain. This is another reason why the routine use of anti-inflammatory medications is unwise -- they may actually inhibit the repair process. Given enough rest time the body will completely fix the broken-down muscles, and will then build them up a little bit more. This last phase is called super-compensation and is why, over time, athletes get stronger and faster.

If, however, the rest time is not sufficient for repair, then the next workout starts with the body in a slightly weakened state. This is common in most training programs, and it is not necessary to have all the muscular damage completely repaired between workouts. As long as there is some time in the near future when complete healing is allowed to occur, then the body can tolerate a small degree of RRI. If this unbalanced state persists for too long then the athlete will begin to notice lingering fatigue, mood changes, altered sleep, persistent soreness and pain, frequent upper respiratory or other infections, altered appetite, poor concentration, irritability, and/or an overuse injury. Sometimes a tired athlete, who has been doing the same workouts for months, can’t understand how they could be overtrained. The answer is that, in general, a small degree of RRI can be tolerated for a longer period of time than a large degree of RRI. The end result is the same though.

Once an athlete gets into an overtrained state, the only way to fix it is with rest. The greater the magnitude of the problem, the more rest needed to correct it. The trap that some people fall into, when workouts and races are going poorly, is to push even harder. These athletes are terrified by the thought of rest. Because they have been getting slower, the concept seems paradoxical, and they get sucked into a vicious vortex.

Prevention is the way to avoid this situation, and is best achieved by including programmed rest into the training schedule. The build-up/rest cycle is referred to as periodization. Early intervention, with rest, is a way to nip a small RRI before it can blossom into big problem. If you’re prone to overdoing it, then keep a fatigue score (0-5) in your training log. This is based on your cumulative “feel” during the day and can help tell you how well you are recovering from exercise. A progressive rise in fatigue signals that you are headed for trouble. Listen to your body’s polite whispers; don’t make it yell at you.