Updated: Feb 23
Any training plan that I ever write will always include rest and recovery as part of that plan. It's a non-negotiable as far as I'm concerned. But why is this? Why is rest and recovery so important if you want to perform well as an athlete?
First of all, what does rest and recovery actually mean?
And by rest, I mean full rest. That is a complete day off. Ideally, you're sitting on the sofa with your feet up and you are doing the bare minimum. You really are resting. Usually I'd only prescribe those kinds of days after a couple of very heavy sessions or after a race when you are likely to get a couple of full rest days.
Active rest has a bit more flexibility to it. You might stretch, do some yoga or take a walk. You could even have a very easy swim. Active rest is about resting so you're definitely not working hard. You're not even coming close to working hard, but you may be moving around a little, just to loosen up and feel good.
Recovery, or a recovery week, is a section of your training plan that follows three weeks of buildup. Your training load will build up over those three weeks and on the fourth week, we'll schedule a recovery week and take the training load down. W take the intensity out of it. We take the speed out of it. You'll mostly be doing aerobic zone two sessions but we still keep the routine so you'll do the same sessions that you normally would but you'll do it at a very easy pace.
So why is recovery so important?
It's important for you physically, but also mentally. Physically rest and recovery gives your body time to heal, time to recover - it does what it says on the tin. Every time you put a hard effort in, you create micro tears in the fibres of your muscles. Rest and recovery allows those muscles to rebuild, to heal. And they can't keep doing that if you keep training, and keep training, and keep training. They don't have that time to heal and recover that they need.
By giving your muscles that time to heal, they actually become stronger. And that's how we get fitter and faster because those muscles can then do more for the same effort level next time round.
Rest and recovery also gives us time to top up our glycogen stores in our muscles and make sure they're fully replenished. Glycogen is the main fuel source that we use as athletes and our stores drop significantly after both aerobic and anaerobic sessions. Once glycogen is depleted, we feel fatigued and performance suffers. Replenishing those stores is key to making sure you can continue to perform.
It helps you to avoid overtrain because if you keep going, and keep going, and keep going, your body will just start to give out on you. all those micro tears don't have time to heal and that's when injuries can happen
Rest and recovery is also essential for your mental health and stress management. Even more so if you're training for big endurance events, like a marathon, a half or full Ironman or anything that requires you to be on a prolonged training plan. Those training plans can be full on and you have to keep going and keep pushing for a long time. It can be difficult to stay on plan when you're constantly pushing and when every session is harder than the last one. A recovery week can give you some mental respite.
It gives you time where you're not having to push yourself out of your comfort zone every single day. It gives you time to actually appreciate what your body is doing and appreciate the improvements that you're making. And it gives you time to clear your head and re-focus ahead of the next 3 weeks of load increases.
What about full rest?
Rest is critical around big races. After an Ironman, a marathon or any really big effort, you're going to need a couple of days of solid, clear rest where you do nothing. Absolutely nothing. And then you're going to go into active rest for a few days, and then recovery possibly for as much as two or three weeks to allow your body to heal and recover from that big effort that you've put in.
By taking that time to fully rest and to manage your return to sport after a significant race, you will bounce back faster.
Recovery weeks and women
When it comes to female athletes, the timing of recovery weeks can be particularly important. For female athletes, working out when in your cycle you feel most tired, most exhausted can help you to identify the best time to take your recovery week. For a lot of women it's the week in the run up to their period, but that might not be the case for you. We're all different. Find the week when you struggle most and then time your recovery week for that week - the one where you feel most tired. If you are trying to push yourself out of your comfort zone, but you are already breathless and tired and heavy legged, you are not only going to struggle to achieve the session, but you are going to then feel dispirited and despondent by the fact that you can't actually do the thing that you think you should be able to do. Timing your recovery weeks to fit with your cycle can be a really powerful way of getting the best performance out of you.
And that's why we do all of this, isn't it? It's the reason we train. It's the reason we rest. It's the reason we recover - so that we can perform as well as we possibly can when it comes to race day. So if you're not including rest in your training plans, if you're not including recovery weeks and taking that intensity out every third or fourth week, then you're not giving your body the time to actually reach optimal performance for your event.