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Rest, why is it important in exercise?

Rest Days!

A term not always liked by athletes but as essential as training. In order to be able to keep running, cycling, weight training and so on, the body and central nervous system must be allowed to rest and recover. This is doubly the case when increasing distance, weight or level of training as the muscles and bones will change with extra stresses placed on them. Without rest the muscles become fatigued and weaker which can lead to muscle strain, overuse syndrome, reduced performance and in more serious cases stress fractures and ligament sprain.

How does rest help? Well, we need to look at what happens to the body when we train to answer this effectively. The muscles are made up of many separate fibres and these will be both long and weak and short and strong. When stress is placed on the muscles through resistive or increased training the weaker muscle fibres will tear and divide. This tearing causes post exercise ache in the muscles and it is after this that the body must be given time to recover. During the recovery stage the damaged fibres will shorten and become strong. Over time this process of fibre division and shortening will cause the muscles to bulk out and become stronger. As a result performance increases and training can progress. If the muscle becomes over worked during through lack of rest injury risk increases as form fails; meaning that the overworked muscle fails to contract fully resulting in reduced ability to correctly perform an action. An example of this may be seen when a squat is performed, when the Quadricep muscles are fatigued; prior to that days training; they will not be able to correctly support the down phase of a squat. Form fails and the knees tend to rotate inward which places increased stress on the joint and with it increased risk of injury to ligaments and surrounding muscles. This also places extra work on to other muscles attached to the knee.

It is generally considered that 24-48 hours rest between training sessions allows the muscles to recover from the microscopic damage (tearing of muscle fibres) caused through work. Additionally this microscopic damage also occurs in the bones and over time they will become denser as a result. Training such as running, jumping and weight training all place extra work on to the bones and can increase its density which is a good thing, provided correct rest is given to allow this to happen properly. Stress fractures can occur when appropriate rest is not factored into training. These are difficult to recover from and will significantly reduce training as a result.

Finally the body lays down new neural pathways which allow the person to perform a task without conscious thought. Without rest the central nervous system becomes unable to relax properly and this results in reduced ability to lay down correct neural pathways for the particular activity being trained. This becomes more serious when over training results in form failure or incorrect form; as the action is repeated with this incorrect form the neural pathway may be laid down in this pattern too. This means that the person will continue to perform the activity incorrectly and this is difficult to correct in the long run.

How can we spot the warning signs that rest is not at the correct level? There are a number of things that indicate that the body isn’t being given enough rest. Reduction in performance; through muscle fatigue would indicate a lack of correct rest. Fatigued muscles simply cannot perform properly and tasks that were previously achievable can become harder to do or slower. Additionally increase in injury, muscle pain, strains, prolonged post exercise aches and cramping can all indicate that the body is being over worked and that the muscles are not resting enough.

Recurring illness is also a key indicator of over training. This occurs as the energy reserved for powering the immune system is depleted by the muscles as they have to draw energy from other areas of the body in order to continue working. Increase in illnesses when training suggests rest is needed to allow the body to recover fully within all of its systems.

So how can we help the body continue to perform to the best of its ability?

Rest, Rest, Rest.

This doesn’t have to mean that you have day after day off but it does mean that a full day or two of rest should be included each week within any training plan and that cross training to use other muscle groups will help. A good stretching regime is also essential to try and promote fully functioning muscles and range of movement.

A good sports or soft tissue massage will also help with recovery from training and can promote performance and reduce chances of injury and muscle related fatigue.


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