Exercising places a tremendous strain on the body. When you exercise, you tear muscle fibers, which the body must repair in order to make you stronger. In order to do this, your body must have time to recover. Because exercise programs vary in duration and intensity, some athletes need more time to recover than others. The average exerciser is fine taking one to three rest days off a week and doesn't require an entire week's recovery. However, athletes doing intense weightlifting or long endurance races should include recovery weeks in their schedule.
The body does not grow stronger or build endurance while you're exercising. It's the period after your workout when your body makes all of these important changes. It's vital to give your body this time to repair itself or your fitness will not increase. In fact, your fitness will likely plateau or decline if you continue to push yourself without recovery. Proper recovery means resting the day after a hard workout or engaging in very light exercise. You should also eat a healthy diet and aim to sleep for at least seven hours a night. Plan recovery days and weeks into your training program and do not skip them.
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A recovery week gives the body more time to heal and adapt to the new physical stimulus. Scheduling a week off will give your body time to do this and will also help you return to your workout stronger and ready to challenge your body once again. Many endurance athletes end their season with a week off and many weightlifters will take a week off from their program every four to eight weeks. It's also common for runners and cyclists to have a down week after a marathon or century as their bodies recover. This helps them transition into the next set of workouts and to keep their minds fresh and engaged in their sport.
When to Recover
If you're setting up a training program, be it lifting weights, cardio or a combination of the two, schedule at least one recovery day into your week. If you're a beginner, take two to three. Advanced exercisers should take a week off at the end of your season or every two to three months. According to M. Doug McGuff, M.D., a week off will not have negative implications on your fitness and is instead highly beneficial for muscular growth and adaptation. Consult a physician or coach if you're unsure of when to schedule recovery.
When athletes do not allow proper recovery time, they risk overtraining. Symptoms of overtraining include chronic fatigue, a foul mood or depression, an elevated resting heart rate, trouble sleeping and decreased athletic performance. The body is also more vulnerable to infections and injury at this time. Symptoms can be severe, so it's important to consult your doctor during the early signs to decrease the length of recovery time.