Rest and recovery days are important for both your athletic performance and your fitness progression for a variety of reasons. Let’s break it down and find out what exactly goes on when you give your body the correct amount of rest.
Balance Exercise with Rest and Recovery
It is the alternation between adaptation and recovery that moves the athlete to higher and higher levels of fitness.
It is the alternation between adaptation and recovery that moves the athlete to a higher and higher level of fitness. The higher the training intensity and effort, the greater the need for planned recovery.
This is where monitoring and recording your workouts in a training log, plus paying particular attention to how your body feels and how motivated you are, is extremely helpful in determining your recovery needs and modifying your training program accordingly.
What Happens During Recovery?
Ok, we have danced around this for long enough! What actually happens in your body when you are recovering from a hard workout.
1. Muscle Recovery
When you workout, your muscles take a beating. This is especially true if you do an impact-based workout or a workout that involves some deceleration, like running or weight training. Every time you strain your muscles with exercise, there is trauma to the muscle fiber. On a certain level, you are basically injuring yourself over and over again.
But this is actually a good thing due to a phenomenon called “hormesis.” Hormesis is a biological reaction where a beneficial effect occurs in response to exposure to a low dose (or doses) of an agent that could be otherwise toxic or lethal at a higher dose. Think of the Dread Pirate Roberts exposing himself to small doses of Iocane powder.
Exercise could actually kill you if you do it enough, but in controlled doses, exercise bestows what we call hormetic benefits. That is if you take time to recover.
Researchers at McMaster University and the Washington University School of Medicine looked into this and found that muscle protein synthesis increases by about 50 percent for four hours after a workout.
The repair process seems to peak about 24 hours after a workout, at which point muscle protein synthetic rate was actually elevated by 109 percent. But by about 36 hours after the workout, the whole process was pretty much complete, and the muscles were back to a ready-to-rock status.
That study was done on “healthy, trained males of university age” so depending on your age, gender and training status, your recovery time may vary. I simply included those recovery durations to demonstrate that it can (and does) take more than a few hours for full recovery in any of the body’s systems that we are addressing today.
2. Blood Recovery
Angiogenesis is what scientists call the process of creating new blood vessels from pre-existing blood vessels. When you work out, your muscle contractions increase angiogenesis, and then during the recovery period, you produce new blood vessels and also the capillaries that feed all your hungry muscle cells.
Numerous studies have shown that capillary density actually increases in response to training and recovery. Researchers have also found increases in reticulocyte counts (new red blood cells) during a taper period following hard workout weeks and months. This is a strong indicator that recovery is an important part of erythropoiesis (red blood cell production) and we all know that having more red blood cells is kind of the Holy Grail for many athletes.
Another cool adaptation that takes place in your blood is an increase in eosinophils, which are the white blood cell components that can remove some of the inflammation causing substances in the body as well as an increase lymphocytes (white blood cells that fight infection). This is one reason why people who are under-recovered tend to get sick more often.
3. Cardiovascular Recovery
Another important part of recovery is something called (EPOC) Exercise post oxygen consumption. You can find out more about that in the article called Is the Theory Behind Orangetheory Fitness Flawed in the section about the “afterburn.”
Like a high-interest credit card, an unpaid oxygen debt is not a debt you want to incur.
Basically, when you have a short and intense burst of exercise like sprinting or doing a Tabata workout, you generate energy for the effort anaerobically (without oxygen). The difference between the amount of oxygen your body required during the effort and what it was actually able to gobble up is called “oxygen deficit.” When you stop sprinting and start to recover (and continue to breathe hard) you will actually need more oxygen to recover than your body can grab in a few minutes or hours. This is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption and is an important factor in being able to nail your next workout or exercise session. Like a high-interest credit card, an unpaid oxygen debt is not a debt you want to incur.