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Rest: The Neglected Part of a Training Programme

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

For my next blog post, I thought it important to revisit the topic of rest, as it is; as the name of this article suggests, neglected too often, which leads to inevitable complications for many. While rest is important at any stage in the calendar, I believe this is an ideal time of year to be reiterating its importance, especially as there have been a few big, demanding events local runners have been participating in over the past few weeks (plus, I believe many still need to be reminded!).

To understand why rest is important, we need to briefly visit the human physiology behind it. The first diagram below summarises the process of how the body adapts to training. Stage 1 is what I refer to as ‘controlled breakdown’. This is when through training we deliberately damage our muscles. You most likely have experienced this in the form of ‘Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness’, or ‘DOMS’ – that feeling when you feel sore the day after a hard session. This sounds bad, but if it is ‘controlled’ it is not harmful to the individual. On the contrary, it is in fact necessary as we wouldn’t be able to improve our fitness without it. There is however a fine line between doing just enough to gain the benefits, and overdoing it and causing injury, and rest is a key component in deciding which way the scales will tip. This leads on to Stage 2, which is where a period of rest follows the workout, and has 2 main benefits – firstly it allows the body to recover from the session, and secondly, adaptation occurs. This is where the body almost starts to think ‘I don’t want to have to go through that hard session again, so as I rest, I will also adapt, so the next time I have to go through something similar, I will be better equipped to cope with the demands’. This therefore is how we become fitter – after all, many people experience a plateau of improvement from doing the same thing over and over, as they are not gradually making things harder.

Rest used effectively

This recovery therefore allows the individual to progress back to Stage 1, where training can continue unhindered. But what if this Stage 2 was removed like in the diagram below? Essentially, all you will be doing is continually repeating Stage 1, and at some point, sooner or later, it will end badly, as this ‘controlled tightness’ becomes a full-blown injury, as shown in the image below. Not only this, but your fitness will plateau as your body feels too physically stressed to continue the same training load, and you will also increase your risk of illness (i.e. common colds etc.) through suppression of immune function. But many people still make the mistake of doing this due to a reluctance to rest for whatever reason – is overtraining brought on through an unhealthy mental obsession of counting miles like others count calories? Are some people scared to rest at the expense of losing their fitness? This logic is completely flawed, because how can you lose your fitness when your body hasn’t yet finished adapting and instigating improvement from your previous session?

"But what if this Stage 2 was removed like in the diagram below? Essentially, all you will be doing is continually repeating Stage 1, and at some point, sooner or later, it will end badly, as this ‘controlled tightness’ becomes a full-blown injury"

When rest is neglected...

It is worth noting though that even in a well thought-out and executed training plan, tightness will eventually start to accumulate, and performance may start to plateau in the tail-end of a long season. This is known as 'over-reaching syndrome', where the symptoms of over-training described above become commonplace. That is why any wise athlete will take at least some rest at the end of a big event, and have an extended break of AT LEAST one week at the end of a season to allow the body to recover, plus a further week of lighter training to gradually get back into things. This is one reason why having an annual plan is so important, because as much as is desirable, it is not realistic to do every single event, and there must be a period in the year where the intensity drops. For instance, in athletics and running, September is a good time for this rest (which is why I posted on my Facebook page a few weeks ago recommending that people rest after the Equinox 24hr event).

This rest period doesn’t necessarily have to be in September, it just depends upon when your main competitions are – for instance, the athletes currently competing in Doha have had a longer season due to the World Championships being later than usual. It also differs depending upon the sport, but no matter when you take it, it needs to be done.

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