“No days off,” I grumbled, my breath forming a tiny cloud against the cold winter air. The hangar we’d been using as a gym offered little reprieve from the desert’s early morning chill, but I knew it would just be a few hours before the bitter dark gave way to searing light, and my workspace would shift from icebox to easy bake oven. It was Christmas, but once the festivities had passed and the New Year came, there was still a fight to be won — and I still had weight to cut.

“No days off.” I grumbled again to the empty room.

We’ve all made our mistakes. Growing up as a skinny kid with a natural body type that’s more Jack Skellington than Dwayne Johnson led me to plenty — crappy supplements, silly workout regimens, crazy diets. If there was a way to break the genetic chains that hindered my progress, I was dead set on finding it. Of course, as the years pressed on, I came to learn that the fads and the powders all seemed to come and go, but the basics remained steadfast: eat well, work hard, and get some rest.

Rest. A dirty word among the uninitiated. When fitness is the goal, inaction seems like going the wrong way down a one way street. No days off, right?

Wrong.

The path to success in fitness tends to come in groups of threes. Want to be a well-rounded athlete? Focus on strength, endurance and flexibility. Want to get there as quickly as you can? Then focus on training, diet, and recuperation. The first two come as little surprise to the fitness oriented. Training, of course, is the means by which we grow in capability (and if it’s the intent, mass), and even the memes of the internet have caught up with the idea that real gains are made in the kitchen as much as they’re the result of time spent under the bar but rest remains the most ignored aspect of the overall endeavor. Like the nuclear triad, those three tenants of progress need to lean on one another for maximum effect. Without one leg of the triad, America’s nuclear arsenal could feasibly be neutered in a large scale attack, eliminating the “mutual” part of our assured destruction.

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Remove training, diet, or rest from your own program, and your progress will be neutered as well.

Basically as bad as not getting enough rest. I may be stretching this simile as far as it’ll go.

Now that I’ve gone and compared getting a good night’s sleep to avoiding a nuclear holocaust (I attest that’s only a slight exaggeration), I assume I don’t need to wax on any further about how important rest is to your overall success — so let’s get down to just what it means to get the rest you need.

Short Term Recovery

Short term recovery tends to be the form of rest we’re all good at — in part because it starts during the workout itself. Lower intensity breaks in your workout, like walking between sprints or pacing between lifts has been proven to reduce the levels of lactate in your blood (the waste product that gives you that burning feeling) and improve overall performance. You probably didn’t need the study I cited in there to know that, though, because you can feel the change a bit of active rest has on your burning muscles while you’re working.

Short term recovery also comes into play on active recovery days. These are days that you still put some exercise in, but in a different fashion and with less intensity. Power lifters may limit their workouts to a light jog a few days a week – they’re still working, but giving their body a chance to recover from the really intense trauma a daily grueling workout can provide.

Long Term Recovery

Long term recovery is all about planning and strategy. It includes scheduling days off into your regimen, incorporating active recovery days, and changing your regimen up periodically to prevent over-training your body in specific ways. On the internet, you’ll find lots of people warning against over-training — and it’s a legitimate concern for some obsessive athletes — but for most of us that lead lives away from the gym, it’s easily avoided by simply incorporating a combination of active recovery and total rest days into your schedule.

Busting your ass every day forever isn’t a sustainable fitness plan, and it’s actually counterproductive. Long term recovery is really just the summation of a number of small recovery efforts – taking a day off here, taking a week away from your primary workouts there, and so forth. If you’re an avid swimmer, take a break from the pool for a week every now and then and spend some time with weights. If you’re an avid lifter, give yourself a week to spend in the pool, and so forth. Changing up that primary workout plan from time to time will also produce better results overall, as your body grows accustomed to what you’ve been doing.

Let the yard work pile up for long enough, and you can spend a week’s worth of workouts just trying to make your house look normal again. (Or is that just me?)

Sleep

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Ah, sleep. The least discussed and most important aspect of the rest endeavor. In basic terms, you know why sleep is so important: when you bust your ass, you get tired. When you’re tired, sleep is the answer. The science behind it, of course, goes a bit deeper, but if you’re looking for a lowest common denominator explanation of the importance of sleep, it really breaks down to giving your body a chance to recover from the abuse you’re doing to it.

If you’re interested in a more substantive explanation, I’ll let Stanford sleep researcher Cheri Mah do that talking. She’s conducted numerous sleep studies involving elite level athletes and found direct correlations between the amount of sleep gotten and physical performance.

We’ve examined the impact of sleep extension across many sports at Stanford including basketball, football, tennis, and swimming to compare similarities and differences across sports. Our findings from men’s basketball published in 2011 indicate that several weeks of sleep extension improves reaction time, mood, levels of daytime sleepiness, and specific indicators of athletic performance including free throws, 3 point field goals, and sprint time. These findings suggest that sleep duration is likely an important component of peak performance.”

It should come as no surprise to you that sleep will improve your performance in the gym, but we tend to think of that issue as a day-to-day concern, rather than in terms of how it effects our progress over extended periods of time. Struggling your way through a few workouts a week after not getting enough sleep seems like a problem at the time, but over years, those days add up to a great deal of lost potential. And, it’s important to note, that many of us with more miles on the odometer tend to still feel tired after racking out for the same amount of time. Mah addresses that as well, pointing out that it’s isn’t that you need more sleep as you get older, it’s often that we’re just getting worse sleep. You may need to allot more time to rest just to make sure your body gets enough of the right kinds of it.

Sleep patterns change as you age; however, the hours of sleep that your body needs does not. As you age, you often spend more time in lighter stages of sleep than deep sleep, and many individuals report having a harder time falling asleep or staying asleep. Additionally, a shift in sleep patterns as you age is commonly called advanced sleep phase syndrome – individuals tend to sleep earlier in the evening and wake earlier in the morning than when they were younger. That said, the shift in your sleep schedule is normal.

In other words, if you’re not feeling rested even after getting your eight hours, don’t argue with your body, try going to bed thirty minutes earlier so you have the opportunity to spend more of your evening in deep sleep, and so forth.

Rest may not be the part of your workout that makes for great Instagram posts, but lacking it will hurt you just as much as a bad diet or a crappy program. Remember, fitness is ultimately about making yourself a healthier, more capable person — and rest is integral to that.

Modified feature image courtesy of PXhere