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Including time for rest in a workout routine can help fitness goals

By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, July 29, 2010

If you're like me, you may be looking at some upcoming vacation and thinking: I wonder how many extra workouts I can squeeze into all that free time?

Bad idea. Instead, stop and remember why you tear yourself away from work for a few weeks each year: to rest.

Rest, in its various forms, is critical to your fitness program. Skip your days off or easy days to cram in extra exercise, and you risk injury, burnout or setbacks in reaching your goals, experts say.

"Even God rested for one day," says my sister-in-law, Tamie DiNolfo,a physician and marathoner who'd rather face a malpractice suit than skip her morning run.

While you're vacationing, "keep the rest in there," says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that promotes safe and effective exercise. "Use the time to take a few extra naps and get a little extra sleep."

Physiologically, you build strength while resting. The muscles you tore down by swimming a few more laps than last time, lifting a few more pounds or cycling just a little faster repair themselves and come back stronger when you give them a chance to recover. That's why, in most training programs, hard days are followed by easy days.

"Exercise is physical stress on the body. If you don't allow the body a chance to recuperate, you can overtax the body," McCall says.

Figuring out how much rest you need and how to go about it takes a little more, well, work.

Let's start at the far end of the spectrum. Competitive athletes -- from Usain Bolt to the students on the college swim team -- put in serious training time. For them, the risk is an identified, if ill-defined, problem known as "overtraining syndrome," or OTS. Although it sometimes can be difficult to get a handle on OTS, coaches, in particular, know it when they see it.

The athlete's performance declines, sometimes suddenly, and he or she may suffer from restlessness, unusual soreness, irritability, nagging injuries and that "stale feeling."

"We don't know what it is. It's where athletes lose their zoom," says Carl Foster, a professor in the department of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. "The thing that makes them magic goes away."

But we do know why some athletes develop OTS, Foster says: Instead of taking easy days or days off, they work harder.

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