How often can you train?
The answer is: as much as you can without neglecting rest.
Rest is an often forgotten yet critically important factor in making any sort of gain with exercise, training, and practice.
Muscles need time to heal and grow. Energy needs time to replenish. And when learning, your brain needs time to consolidate new information.
In this article, we will look at some science to see how long one should rest.
TLDR (Too long, didn’t read)? Skip to the summary at the end.
Rest: why so important?
Benefits from exercise do not come from exercising. Benefits come from your body’s adaptation to exercise. Adaptations to conditioning exercise (‘cardio’, drills, etc.) are mainly improvements in your energy metabolism and cardiovascular system. Strength training adaptations include structural changes like bigger muscles, and better nervous system recruitment of muscles. Adaptations do not occur until after exercise when the body has a chance to rest and repair.
This is important to understand, or else you may take a ‘more is better’ approach and think that if you exercise as much as you can (or as hard as you can) every day you will get results faster. In reality, you would be setting yourself up for over-training and possibly start suffering from repetitive stress injuries (RSI’s)!
So how long do you need to rest? That’s what we will be discussing in this article.
Note: Rest for exercise is a bit different from rest for injuries. If you want to learn more about that, read ‘Rest for Injuries’. Also read it if you think you might be over-training or getting RSI’s. Also, check out this article I wrote for b-boys: B-Boy Off-Season.
So how long do you need to rest?
Generally speaking, the harder a workout you have, the longer you need to rest. Obviously.
But let’s look at the details of a few different situations:
Recovery during Competition:
Immediately after exercise, you start recovering. A study done way back in 1987 demonstrated that different things recover at different times after a hard bout of exercise 1. Nerve impulse propagation (activation speed) to muscles recovered after only four minutes of rest. High-energy phosphates (your fastest energy system) and MVC (your maximum voluntary contraction: the hardest you can flex your muscles) recovered after 20 minutes of rest. But it took neuro-muscular efficiency (how well coordinated your muscles are) about 60 minutes to return to normal levels.
What does all this mean? After you have already beat yourself out, you need about 30 to 60 minutes of rest before doing something at your maximum effort again.
Therefore, don’t go all out during your warm-up! Save some energy.
Either way, you probably don’t have much to worry about between rounds/games. For most sports, competitions are usually performed at sub-maximal levels of effort.
You may be trying as hard as you can, but because you are also concentrating on skill, strategy, and technique, you’re not just working your muscles at 100% the whole time. Plus, you are usually not performing long enough to really exhaust yourself.
Recovery from Exercise:
Exercise and activity is not the same thing. Exercise is activity done for the purpose of making some sort of improvement. So if it’s physical fitness you are after, exercise need to push your limits. It is supposed to be exhausting! Therefore, you need rest from exercise.
It seems that after moderate exercise it takes only a few days for muscles to recover to their full strength. But for intense efforts it might be quite a bit longer 2. By many estimates, it takes about 7-10 days after very high intensity training for a muscle to get back 100% of it’s strength and show any gains.
However, working out the same muscles again a couple times throughout the week doesn’t seem to slow your recovery 3. So if you have one or two hard workouts a week, and the rest are moderate, you should be fine. But it’s probably not a good idea to go full out many times a week! Especially after a full out performance like a marathon. It’s probably a good idea to take a week off after this type of event.
Most training programs recommend a day or two off per week. To be sure you are getting enough rest, It’s a good idea to take two days off in a row each week (five days on, two days off) if you can schedule it. And to be sure you don’t over-train, be sure to only work at your highest intensity a couple times a week (strength training to exhaustion), and tone it down slightly the rest of the week.
Recovery from Activity:
As mentioned, activity isn’t as intense as exercise. See: Activity vs. Exercise. You don’t really need to rest from general activity unless it was intense. It’s still okay to go for a walk or even casual sports the day after a workout.
Sometimes even practice can be considered activity, as you may only be working on specific techniques, or if you are an artist, creativity. This might not be vigorous, and will not require significant rest other than a good night of sleep.
Having a day off doesn’t mean you have to stay inside sitting on the couch all day.
My personal experience as a dancer:
As you may know… I’m a dancer. When I practice it isn’t always super intense. I will often have practices where I will definitely sweat, but I won’t leave exhausted. This is likely because I am in okay shape (I hope) and I am working more on technique or being creative during those days. I try to only have really intense practices about 2-3 times a week (drilling moves or steps, doing strengthening exercises), but overall I try to practice 5 times a week. Teaching classes also counts in that ‘moderate’ area of intensity. Sometimes I leave mentally exhausted, cuz those kids are crazy!
Summary / Final Recommendations:
- During a competition, it takes about 20 minutes of rest between extreme efforts (like an intense game) to get back your full strength. After wiping yourself out, allow 30+ minutes to recover. Therefore, for most types of competition, you have nothing to worry about.
- Light to moderate activity: not much rest needed… a good sleep.
- Moderate to high: just take the next day off, or do a lighter activity.
- High intensity exercise: after a hard workout, it takes muscles about a week to completely recover and make gains in strength.
*But after a day of rest, exercising hard again actually won’t slow your recovery down. You just won’t be at your full strength again yet.
- Extreme (like a marathon): take a week off, or at least take it easy for a week. Get back into things gradually the following week.
Here are some general guidelines based on conventional athletics wisdom, as well as the above review of the research:
- Yes, you can exercise almost every day!
- Practice doesn’t always have to be high-intensity; concentrate on perfecting skills.
- Light exercise or ‘cardio’ can be done most days of the week with no ill effect.
- Limit very intense exercise to once or twice a week, ideally followed by a day of rest.
- Allow for at least one or two full days of rest a week.
- Try to take a week or two off once every three or four months.
NOTE: These guidelines are meant for reasonably fit individuals. You may need more rest if you are deconditioned. And, you may get away with less rest if you are young and/or exceptionally fit.
Even high level athletes need to rest more often than they like to think. Don’t neglect rest!
Questions? Comment below!
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