When it comes to improving our performance, we obviously need to train properly to create the training stimulus. But there is another, equally important factor when it comes to training, and that is rest!
What are the signs you need to rest?
When we train, what we are trying to achieve is a training stimulus or stress. In response to this stress, our body adapts to better cope with that stress in the future.
For example, you do some VO2max efforts. One of the key adaptations from these is an increase in mitochondrial biogenesis via a certain metabolic pathway called the AMPK pathway. The body generates more mitochondria in the muscle cells to better break down fuel sources faster and produce more power aerobically, thus increasing our capacity to work at those VO2max intervals.
We can also increase mitochondria via low intensity high volume training, however this stimulates the adaptations using the calcium activated pathway, as well as improving muscle capillarisation via the VEGF pathway. As these adaptations occur, we can experience the same external stress, say 5min at 400w or 4hours at 200w, and be able to deal with it far easier.
This is how we get better and improve performance, and also why as we get fitter we need to change the stimulus to avoid plateaus.
Where rest becomes incredibly important is that the adaptations that mean we become better athletes, require rest to actually occur. As we continue to stress ourselves with training we create more fatigue metabolites, more free radicals and reactive oxygen species, greater cortisol levels etc, and if these are left unchecked, we actually reduce our performance due to the damage of chronic exposure to these fatigue factors.
This is why overtraining is such an issue as more often than not, athletes will see a plateau or reduction in performance and believe that they need to train more, whereas in reality they likely need to rest.
When we rest or reduce our training load/stress, either by decreasing volume or intensity, we give the body the chance to create the adaptations to training.
There are several ways in which we can incorporate rest into our training routines, and it depends on what level of athlete we are as well as what our other life stresses are.
For example, a professional cyclist may not have a day off the bike during the year. In fact, during stage races and their rest days, the riders tend to ride for a few hours on the rest days. This is for a few reasons, but often some athletes don’t respond well to no exercise at all and the next day will feel more tired.
Relative to the race days they have, the rest days are far lower in volume and intensity which is important to allow recovery. However, after the stage race, then the riders will dramatically reduce both the volume and intensity of their rides so as to recover from the race.
Think Matthieu Van Der Poel after the Giro 2022, he went straight to altitude rather than resting and was too fatigued during the Tour De France and his performance was not what he expected. The problem was not having enough rest.
Do pro athletes need rest days?
For many recreational athletes, or those of us who experience other life stresses from family, work, commutes, pets etc, it is important that we have enough rest to combat both training and life stresses. This normally would come in the form of two rest days a week off the bike, or one complete day off and a day doing an active recovery spin which is very low intensity and volume.
For runners, they may find that cycling on a rest day is a good way of reducing relative stress while maximising time training to generate aerobic fitness gains. This is because for runners, firstly it is often not safe to do the same level of volume as when cycling, and secondly because the eccentric forces generated from running cause greater levels of muscle damage than the purely concentric muscle contractions from cycling.
So for runners and triathletes, doing lower intensity cycling on rest days can be a great way of maximising fitness gains while avoiding an overload of training stress and risking overtraining, burnout and injury.
So on a micro level, rest days are a good idea for most of us to incorporate once or twice a week. Equally on a macro scale, rest periods or deload phases with increased recovery are also incredibly useful. This is why planning your competitive season is important.
You may have two Key A goals throughout the year which you want to peak for. To build the training stimulus, you would have a build phase with increasing training stress so as to stress the body to adapt and perform better for the race. Then, perhaps a week or two before the event you will decrease the total training load so as to taper for the event with more recovery.
This is specific recovery to ensure that form for the race is ideal and all about peaking. After the event you may also require a rest period purely for physical rest but also for mental rest before getting set again to target your next A goal.
So, we can have rest on a macro level as we tailor training blocks throughout the year, we can have it on a micro basis as we incorporate specific rest or recovery days during the week, and we can also have it on a session level where we have rest periods between efforts. Without implementing rest appropriately across all these levels, we wouldn’t be able to optimise our training to create the stimulus required to generate the adaptations that make use faster. We also would allow these adaptations to occur if we never rested!
So, if you’re hitting a period where perhaps your training is plateauing, think, are you resting enough? The chances are you might not be at a session level, micro, or macro and could experience greater training gains and performance by better incorporating rest into your training routine.