Rest day or kick ass day?
November 8, 2022 5:30 PM   Subscribe

Athletes: how do you figure out if you need a rest day, or if it's a good day to be active? And how do you recover? Seeking anecdotes and science.

I have a training schedule that usually works for me. I alternate my favorite forms of exercise, and have a planned rest day. If I feel beat I'll take an extra rest day and I'm not rigid about sticking to the schedule, but I love my physical activities and usually would prefer to go do them.

But the past few weeks I've had a tough time recovering. I'll still be sore the next day, or I'll be tired, or inflammation makes my arthritis act up. I can't always figure out if it's a good day to exercise (great for mood, energy, reducing inflammation) or rest (great for recovery in general).

So I have two questions:
a) what do you do to help with recovery, post-exercise?
b) what metric do you use to determine if it's a rest day or an exercise day?
posted by The corpse in the library to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Post-exercise recovery: protein asap, hydration, and a nap if it works in the schedule. Apparently most naturally-occurring human growth hormone is released in the first half hour of sleep, or something, so even a short nap can be beneficial.

Rest day of exercise day: I'm a cyclist and I used a training aid called a power meter, which pretty strictly quantifies my acute training load and chronic training load and lets me see how much I've overreached - when I'm training heavily I know that several weeks of carrying a negative training stress balance (chronic load minus acute load) makes me absolutely wiped out and ready for a rest week. But looking at the numbers only helps so much - I'd also have to listen to my body. If I were dragging ass, tired, etc - unmotivated to do hard workouts - then it was time to back off a bit. Sometimes this means a rest day. Sometimes it means a rest week.

You might be interested in a wearable fitness tracker called the Whoop. It does 24/7 heart rate monitoring. Based on your data (and what it learns about you and your baselines), Whoop calculates a score for the strain you've accrued and the extent to which it thinks you're recovered. It does this based on things it measures while you're asleep, including resting heart rate, respiratory rate, and heart rate variability - that in particular is a big one. Whoop's machine learning algorithms learn about your baseline and reports based on that. It's a ~$30/mo subscription, though.

I was a little skeptical about this when I was training heavily, but was recently gifted one to help me handle recovery and fatigue based on a chronic illness. And I've been learning about it and seeing how useful it would have been when I was training. And it seems like it provides exactly the kind of insight you're interested in.
posted by entropone at 6:15 PM on November 8, 2022

As mentioned above HRV (heart rate variability) tracking seems to be the go-to science for this. I have not used it but I know several people who swear by it. It's available on many but not all heart rate monitors, some apple watches as an app, etc.

For me, I tend to foam roll, theragun, eat, hydrate depending on what kind of workout it was. As I'm getting older I've also accepted that if I'm on the fence some days need to be semi-rest days - that might be an easy bike ride, or an online stretching / easy yoga class. That helps with my mood without putting undue stress on my body.
posted by true at 6:43 PM on November 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

1. I make sure to eat something to make up for those calories. I have a track record of cruising on that post-exercise high, then falling into a coma when my body realizes it can't survive on that huge calorie deficit. Maybe a nap. But also, making sure I get some movement. Otherwise tired muscles seems to stay tight the following day.

And I try (but usually fail) to get a good night's sleep.

2. Quantifying "readiness" is where a lot of exercise tech money is going. There's the aforementioned Whoop. There's Oura, there's Garmin, there's HRV4Training, there's TSS (from Strava), there's Garmin (again), there's Polar, there's Garmin (the third time), and probably a bunch more. There are simple ones like checking your resting heart rate (if it's higher than normal , you need to rest), or comparing how you feel the first half hour and then deciding to quit if it's not great.

I like the simple ones that don't rely too much on algorithms - resting heart rate, maybe HRV.
posted by meowzilla at 6:43 PM on November 8, 2022

I’m a runner training for a marathon. I will take not take an unplanned rest day unless I am sick or have pain that is more serious than just soreness. On days that I’m just not feeling it, the goal is to get out the door, even if it’s a shorter or easier run. Some days just getting moving is enough to shake it off. And on the days it’s not, I still feel better for trying. I cool down and stretch as well, which help with recovery.

The biggest game changer for me has been fueling. Diet culture really did a number on me and I have only recently realized that I was not eating nearly enough. I have dramatically increased my calories, even on rest days. It has made a massive improvement in my performance and my recovery. I am also making the conscious effort to properly fuel before, during, and after my runs and it is paying off. My recovery is faster, my energy levels are more consistent, and I’m going into my next workout stronger.
posted by August Fury at 6:56 PM on November 8, 2022 [4 favorites]

Apologies if this is too obvious, but since it was in your title: rest and kick ass aren't the only two options. Most days should be relatively easy, especially if you're feeling worn down. Definitely cut intensity, and if that's still too much, cut duration.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:12 PM on November 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

>But the past few weeks I've had a tough time recovering. I'll still be sore the next day, or I'll be tired, or inflammation makes my arthritis act up. I can't always figure out if it's a good day to exercise (great for mood, energy, reducing inflammation) or rest (great for recovery in general).

If this is happening, and you’re not training for a specific event, like it’s just exercise for health and personal satisfaction, really just pull back for a couple weeks. Take extra rest days, or reduce intensity or time for a while.

Or even just strip it right down to walking or swimming. Swimming or indeed aqua jogging especially is like massaging your muscles from the inside, super great for recovery. (Hydrostatic pressure compresses your joints, muscles, and skin, which helps with circulation -> brings oxygen to tissues, removes lactic acid that causes muscle soreness.)

I would do this until you start feeling great again after a workout. That’s to say I think your subjective feeling of having energy or not, feeling winded and worn or not, is a solid enough metric for when to do what. Push it when you’re feeling strong, pull back when you feel tired and weak.

Hugely important - prioritize sleep, sleep is just as essential as nutrition and training.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:20 PM on November 8, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I have an Apple Watch, if anyone has advice that involves those.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:23 PM on November 8, 2022

Will second all the 'pull back/more rest/more calories/MORE SLEEP" advice, and say if you're not feeling it, do recovery stretching, walk around the block, eat some calories and drink water... and take a nap!

If you need the "fix", figure out why. Find another way to get it. Hammering yourself when you're tired isn't "healthy" even if it's exercise.
posted by esoteric things at 7:41 PM on November 8, 2022 [3 favorites]

I've been doing hard "functional fitness" workouts for about 3 years, and I saw a big improvement in how I felt when i switched from 6 days a week to 5. It made a huge difference in how worn out I felt by the end of the week, and consequently I've made really big gains in my strength/lifting... which yes, seems counterintuitive but fewer workouts helped me progress more. Aside from tracking my lifting progress, I don't have any quantifiable evidence but I generally just "feel better" and get less sore overall.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:27 PM on November 8, 2022 [2 favorites]

I use the Training Today app for Apple Watch. It uses HRV to tell you how rested you are and pushes you to work out when you’re rested. It has a nice side effect of confirming I’ve actually done a good workout, because if not, I’ll recover too quickly. It also identifies when I haven’t slept well and should rest longer. It’s working better for me than setting a fixed exercise and recovery schedule (I feel better and am not cutting exercise short as often.)
posted by michaelh at 8:56 PM on November 8, 2022

What kind of arthritis do you have? I’m thinking an inflammatory type rather than osteoarthritis but I may be interpreting wrong. Fatigue and feeling worn down can be a sign of a flare, rather than overtraining. Have you checked in on making sure your arthritis management is keeping up with you? (For me, there’s no amount of rest that takes care of that weariness - I need treatment…)
posted by Tandem Affinity at 10:28 PM on November 8, 2022

Response by poster: It’s mild inflammatory type, rarely a problem but if other things are going on (e.g. when I needed a root canal and didn’t realize it) it makes my hands ache. It’s sort of useful, in that it makes me pay attention to what other minor things are happening and look for patterns.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:21 AM on November 9, 2022

Ok, these things probably vary a lot depending on the kind of activity, but I do a lot of climbing and here is my advice from that angle:

Good nutrition post exercise makes a big different. Lots of people have mentioned protein but glycogen replacement has a smaller window to take effect in my experience.

More rest is generally good. To gain muscle you need a stimulus and time to adapt. Most people neglect the latter, especially if they are keen. More rest also enables you to have higher quality sessions, which is important both physically and to engrain good habits. I think framing your thinking around quality of exercise, instead of volume of exercise is helpful.

As well as resting within each week, every 6-8 weeks have a longer rest, like 5 days - 1 week. This doesn't mean stopping completely, I think 'de-load' is a preferred term to rest now, as it's good to do a little, just never go over 50% effort.
posted by Ned G at 7:53 AM on November 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

I am also a cyclist, and entrepone said a lot of what I would say. In endurance sports (cycling especially), there's a concept called training stress balance. Ideally you want TSB to be negative, which basically indicates you are continuing to push yourself, but not beyond -30, which indicates you are pushing yourself too hard. After a race or other big effort, TSB can go way negative.

I design my own training plans in Training Peaks, and I can see what my weekly TSB will be, and can alter it accordingly. I normally have 2 hard interval days per week and 1-2 rest days per week, I also have an easy week every 3 weeks. I was once able to diagnose a medical problem when I was unable to complete an interval workout that I knew should have been possible. But ordinarily, I push through.

I don't use a Garmin watch, but I know that they have functionality similar to the Whoop that basically tells you when to take it easy.
posted by adamrice at 8:02 AM on November 9, 2022

HRV is the best indicator I've found, and it's backed by tons of research.

HRV4Training is validated to work with your phone sensor but you'll be even better off with a Polar H10 strap on your chest. Look up their blog for more on the research. You can get HRV4Biofeedback, their companion app, to start breathwork that helps with recovery.

There are other apps that do a similar reading. In terms of devices, you're looking at Garmin (body battery draws on HRV), Oura ring, Whoop wrist band, possibly Apple Watch and other smart watches. Over time I've come up know the physical feeling associated with the different readings, so I can rely less on the device.
posted by rockyraccoon at 9:48 AM on November 9, 2022

Have you tried a deload week or equivalent where you cut back or even just rest for a week (or two) before going back to your routine? That works for a lot of people (me included).
posted by telophase at 12:38 PM on November 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the replies! I'm incorporating many of your tips, including using an RTT-tracking app. So far it hasn't given me a "yeah, go for it!" day yet; I'm either more worn out than I realized or I need to adjust the settings. Either way, it's an interesting bit of information to dork around with.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:12 PM on November 14, 2022

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