Rest Up! Why Recovery Matters For Good Training

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We’ve all wondered about those “rest days” in training programmes. How important are they? Can I skip them if I’m behind? Am I being lazy by having rest days? How often do I need them?

Well they are vital, not only to your wellbeing as a runner, but also to reaching your full potential in a training programme.

The Mechanics of Exercise

Exercise is actually a form of physical stress applied to the body. The mitochondria (cells that generate energy) in your body go into overdrive during an exercise session. They are constantly breaking down and re-forming high energy bonds within your muscles (adenosine triphosphate to adenosine diphosphate and back again if you must know) to release energy required for whatever exercise you are doing.

This is what is known as a catabolic (breaking down) process, which causes both metabolic fatigue and mechanical stress.

The metabolic fatigue is from all the energy that has been used up to break the bonds and release the energy to power your muscles. Whether you are using the stores in your body from food, or deeper stores held within muscles themselves (such as creatine phosphate) it is all fuel, and will need to be replenished.

The mechanical stress is the damage caused to the protein structures of the muscles themselves by the movements made during exercises. The “sliding filament” theory explains how the proteins actin and myosin bind to “pull” on the muscle and cause it to contract.

The Training and Adaptation Cycle

In the training and adaptation cycle, a training base level is subjected to some form of training stimulus which results in an immediate drop in performance whilst recovery takes place. After adequate recovery, the training will have caused adapations in both cardiovascular and muscular fitness to cause the base level to rise above where they were before. Repeating this is how improvements are made – as shown in this diagram.

However, without adequate recovery a subsequent training session will not even see the person reach the level they were at before the first session, resulting in a downwards trend (you get the picture).

Different Recovery Patterns For Strength vs. Endurance

So how much recovery does each person need?

Well it depends on a number of factors: your fitness level, your age, the type of training you are doing and how good your recovery time actually is.

You will hear stories of elite athletes who have honed this recovery time to about 4 hours, by raising their fitness level over a number of years, but also with immediate nutrition and getting sleep in between sessions. This is not realistic for most of us with normal responsibilities in life.

If you are new to exercise you might find that you need a couple of days to recover after a training session. If you’ve been running for a while you might find that actually 24 hours are about right to recovery from an endurance session, so feel confident running daily. Younger runners might also find they recover more quickly than older runners.

In general 24 hours is a good guide for recovery from a run. However this isn’t necessarily enough for any session for example, strength and conditioning or a tough hills workout.

A session which “stresses” the body to a greater extent may require more recovery than a simple run at low intensity, because of the greater mechanical stress on the muscles with the breaking of more bonds and use of more energy stores, which need to be both repaired and replenished.

Again there are many factors at play, but a tough session including strength work is likely to need double the amount of recovery time, so 48 hours as a guide, but possibly up to 72 hours after something very intense. That isn’t to say you can’t do anything at all in the meantime, but the aim of activity in that period should be gentle recovery and encouraging blood flow.

Interestingly a study was done in 2005 which looked at twice daily training with a rest day, vs. daily training. They trained individual legs of the same people differently and then measured and compared the enzyme and protein markers in each leg! It was a small study, but it suggested that the twice daily approach with a rest day was better than daily training.

What is Happening During Recovery?

Most runners will be familiar with the feeling of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) after a very intense effort such as a big race. This is thought to be caused by a combination of the disruption of the muscle fibres and surrounding tissues and an imflamatory response to the tissue damage caused by the strenuous exercise.

So during this phase a few things are happening:

  1. The repair process, reduction in inflammation and the mending of tissues.
  2. The replenishment of the glycogen stores and other energy stores and systems.
  3. Lastly adapation (also known as supercompensation) where a level of fitness is achieved that is higher than the pre-exercise levels. This occurs in muscular and cardiovascular systems as a result of running.

Can I Speed Up Recovery?

There is a huge amount of advice out there, and entire industries have been built on speeding up this recovery process. Various studies have been performed including things like:

  • Massage (including foam rolling)
  • Compression garments
  • Cold water immersion (or hot water)
  • Stretching
  • Sleep
  • Special drinks for nutritional supplement
  • Active recovery (e.g. recovery runs/walks)

Do these work?

A recent study, published in February 2017 looked at post-exercise recovery practices of Australian team-sports athletes, mostly using surveys to find out which strategies they perceived effective and which they preferred to use.

We know our energy stores are depleted, so we know good nourishment will help us to recover. Protein structures have been affected and are trying to adapt, so a bit of protein seems sensible.

General advice within the fitness industry does seem to be to eat something with at least some protein (could even be a glass of milk) within 40 minutes of tough session to aid recovery. However, we do also know that carbohydrates, in the form of glucose, are the body’s preferred fuels to provide a rapid energy response if you are looking for a fast energy source after a longer run for example.

Sleep (or rest)
We know that it takes energy for the body to repair any damaged tissues and to build the training adaptations. If we are rushing about the place after a session then our bodies will have less energy to divert into the recovery process. It isn’t always possible to sleep whenever we want, but getting your legs up and getting a bit of rest will definitely be beneficial.

Other strategies
There has been research identifying that compression garments may improve local blood flow, waste product removal, reduce swelling, reduce muscle oscillations, and decrease post-exercise muscle soreness. It is possible they can enhance recovery. However there are many inconsistencies in the data, not least the question of each person’s relative size and the level of compression needed. So although they may be effective, it is best to take manufacturers’ claims with a pinch of salt and work out what works for you.

The theory behind the cold water therapy is that it reduces the inflammatory response. Although this makes sense, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive study proving its effectiveness. But many do swear by it, especially elites in their autobiographies!

We’ve looked at stretching in numerous articles before and after a tough session. The idea is that stretching helps to lengthen contracted muscles and help start the recovery process, as well as extending and maintaining a good range of movement.

All the other techniques listed (massage, foam roller, hot water, active recovery) are based on the increased blood flow principle. The idea being that improving blow flow through the muscles will help to bring the nutrients to the muscles for repair and take away waste products more quickly. This is logical, but you have to be careful with these techniques (especially the active ones) that you don’t actually start the training cycle all over again by kicking off that catabolic response to exercise too soon.


Recovery is vital to reaching your training goals. Make sure to plan enough time into your training plan for adequate recovery, particularly after strength work. The processes taking place within your body for the training and adaptation cycle are complex ones. Give your body enough nourishment, rest and time to recover properly. Find out what additional strategies work for you, even if you just think they are working, the positive mindset will probably aid recovery. If you do have DOMS, it is your body telling you that you are not ready for another hard session, so let it recover enough before you “stress” it again.

After a big race you need a bit more recovery, see our article on recovering from a big race for more details.

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