Aerobic exercise on "rest days" for sleep?
April 23, 2015 11:43 AM   Subscribe

I often have a hard time falling asleep; intense aerobic exercise goes a long way toward remedying this problem. I often hear, however, that your body needs a "rest day" for recovery from strenuous exercise. My body certainly feels less sore if I take a rest day, but the sleep I get in return is mediocre at best. MeFites who use exercise partly for sleep: How do you balance the need for relatively heavy aerobic exercise with the need to give your body time to recover?

Extra info:

I sit at a desk a good part of the day, and I'm relatively inactive aside from my workouts (Although I do take stretch breaks). I mostly either run or work out on the arc trainer at my gym.

The arc trainer isn't as hard on my legs as running is, but it kicks the **** out of my leg muscles. Lower resistances are better than nothing, but I've learned through trial and error that lighter exercise doesn't have the same effect on my sleep. Increasing the duration helps, but it probably doesn't qualify as a rest day in that case.

I also recently started a weekly tai chi class for beginners, which isn't strenuous but still gives me a light workout. I tried setting the day the class falls on as my rest day, but it's just not doing it for me.

What kinds of exercise which significantly raise one's heart rate would be considered acceptable on rest days? Or is pushing yourself seven days a week - even if you're cross-training - a risky idea? I've injured myself before from overtraining in the past, and don't want to push my body past its limits again.

PS: Swimming is not an option at this point in time.
posted by CottonCandyCapers to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What about if you woke up earlier in the mornings?
posted by oceanjesse at 11:48 AM on April 23, 2015

Maybe alternate with a boxing/speedbag workout? That will both give your legs a rest from running while also achieving an intense aerobic upper body workout. Or, while it still engages your legs, a rowing machine could be a good alternate as it combines a major upper body component and potentially less intense leg workout.
posted by quince at 11:52 AM on April 23, 2015

Unless you're going really, really hard, a rest day doesn't need to be sitting on your ass. I try to think of rest days as "play" days. I run, I jump, I play sports, I generally do anything my kids do. I just don't go anywhere near the intensity of my work days.
posted by bfranklin at 11:53 AM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a long history of my sleep being helped by exercise. At the moment, I live without a car and I walk four or more hours most days. I did this for about 14 months straight, took about a 4 month break, and then returned to it. I am not seeing any problems from not having any rest days.

I will suggest a hypothesis: Perhaps you need the benefit of what exercise does to your lymphatic system. Lymph is pumped by muscle action, not by the heart, even though it is kind of part of the circulatory system. Engaging in physical activity dramatically increases the rate at which lymph is returned from your general tissues (where it is interstitial fluid) to your circulatory system (where it is probably basically plasma -- the fluid part of your blood, minus the blood cells).

If that is the mechanism, or one of the mechanisms, behind exercise helping you sleep, salt water baths and massages on your rest days might be helpful. Alternately, find time in your schedule for longer duration, lower impact workouts like walking and see if that works adequately as a rest day for you.
posted by Michele in California at 11:57 AM on April 23, 2015

There are people who run every day, but they don't run hard every day. They do two or three intense/"quality" workouts a week, and easier runs on other days. You could work up to that.

Personally, I run three days a week, with two 4-5 mile runs and a long run (currently up to 9 miles, but I'm slowly working up to 15 miles). I cycle three to five days a week (sometimes also on run days), with distances ranging from 15 to 50 miles per ride, except in the weeks before a long-distance event, when I'll work up to an 80- to 100-mile training ride. I do try to have one day a week with no moderate or intense aerobic activity (heart rate over 150, in my case), but I'll often hike, do a long walk, or do an easy bike ride with my wife on the "rest" day.

Cycling is an excellent complement to running, because it works somewhat different muscles and it is low impact, unlike running.

A lot depends on how you define "hard." Here are three of my recent runs, with the recovery times recommended by the algorithm in my Garmin Forerunner 620 (my maximum heart rate is around 190 and my resting rate is currently 46, for comparison's sake):

Easy run: 4 miles at 7:56/mile pace, average HR 148. Suggested recovery time of 20 hours before a hard workout.

Moderately intense run: 5 miles at 7:33 pace, average HR 156. Suggested recovery time of 32 hours before a hard workout.

Intense/hard run: 5K (3.11 mile) race at 7:00 pace, average HR 174. Suggested recovery time of 45 hours before a hard workout.

I would have no problem doing that easy run every day, provided I built up slowly to 7 days of running per week to allow my muscles and ligaments to adapt. And I currently have no problem doing the equivalent every day; my easy bike rides are done at an average heart rate between 125 and 145.

How intense does your exercise need to be for it to benefit your sleep?
posted by brianogilvie at 12:10 PM on April 23, 2015

aerobic exercise rest days are beneficial for people doing stuff that is high impact with the potential for repetitive stress injury, like running on hard surfaces (or even just running in general, depending on age/state of knees/etc). if you're doing something like aerobics one day and cycling another and running on the third, it's not going to have the same overall debilitating effect as 3 days of just running will. i hear you on the quad exhaustion, though.

if it's just your legs that get the super achy muscle soreness you could try something like a rowing machine, maybe? otherwise some light cycling on a recumbent or regular exercise bike will do a lot of good for warming up (and therefore loosening) sore and achy quads. my gym also has something i call an "arm bike" but i assume there is a more official name for it - it's basically a pedaled machine at shoulder high where you spin the pedals with your arms.

also make sure you are stretching a lot, not just on rest days! and a foam roller will be your bosom friend.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:29 PM on April 23, 2015

I recently started taking my dog on half-hour walks right before bedtime in the hopes that it would help him sleep through the night - to my surprise, it helped me too! So maybe a walk right before bed, which shouldn't be too strenous.
posted by lunasol at 12:46 PM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can tell by soreness if your muscles need rest; to tell if you're overtraining overall, you can track your pulse when you wake each day, either manually or with an app. If your resting pulse is unusually high, you are likely overtraining.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:59 PM on April 23, 2015

Instead of hard cardio, you could try standing on one leg to exhaustion on your rest days. It wouldn't be terribly pleasant, but it would be brief.
posted by katya.lysander at 2:11 PM on April 23, 2015

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