Have you ever worked out hard without taking a break, only to find yourself injured or in pain? Maybe you’ve tried high-intensity interval training, but you didn’t have the patience to wait a full minute before your next sprint or set of push-ups. Or perhaps you trained for a marathon but skipped a rest day. Or you rushed through a weights workout at the gym without pausing between sets.
Skipping rest may be OK for a little while, but eventually it catches up to you. Ask any experienced endurance athlete and they’ll tell you the same: rest is an integral part of the physical training process. Downtime after an intense workout allows your body to repair itself and become stronger.
If you don’t make room for rest, prepare to face the consequences: an injury that may hurt your performance—or take you out of the game altogether.
High-Intensity Workouts Requiring Rest Periods
What kind of workouts require rest periods to avoid injury? All of them. Every type of exercise at every intensity level requires recovery time. Of course, the more intensely you’re working out, the more the rest matters.
Pushing your body hard with cardio or resistance training—for example, when running or doing an intense cross-training routine—is harder on your body than a short stroll around the block. Higher-intensity activities cause you to sweat more and dehydrate faster, and they subject your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bone to a lot more stress.
So how much should you rest, if you’re training hard?
The recommended guideline is to follow a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio. If you push hard for 2 minutes (as you might if you’re doing interval training), take one full minute of rest. If you sprint on a treadmill or elliptical for 5 minutes, take at least 2 minutes and 30 seconds to cool down.
This guideline applies for hard workouts of any duration. If you exercise intensely for 30 straight seconds, take a 15-second rest before resuming. Why?
Intense muscle workouts without enough rest can lead to cramping and spasms.
Intense interval training without rest can cause muscle strains, sprains, and tissue tears or ruptures.
Intense cardio workouts without rest can do the same—plus you can overheat and dehydrate. Stress, overuse, and impact injuries (such as shin splints, in the case of high-impact workouts) are also more likely.
Intense workouts of any kind without sufficient rest afterward—and replenishment of nutrients and water—can actually break down the body and make you weaker.
Many athletes, especially beginning athletes, ask this question.
The answer: your body needs time to repair tissue damage; it needs the opportunity to repair micro tears in muscle, for example—a process that makes muscles stronger. Rest also allows you to replace the lost fluids and glucose that your body needs to function and heal.
Without sufficient repair time, and without replacing what’s lost metabolically during workouts, tissue continues to break down. Instead of building up your muscle, continued strain without a break tears down your muscle, damaging it and diminishing it.
How Much Recovery You Need
Periods of rest apply both to individual workouts and to longer-term training programs. The body needs both short-term recovery (immediately after workouts or between intervals) and long-term recovery (days or weeks of rest over the course of a long-term training program).
How much recovery you need depends on the activity.
For short-term recovery, follow the 2:1 ratio.
For long-term recovery, talk to a coach or physical therapist about strategies that can maximize your training. If you’re preparing for a long-distance bike race, for example, you may need to allow for one rest day each week, plus one or two “low mileage days.” If you’ve been working hard for a sustained period of time (say, weeks or months), you may even benefit from an occasional rest week.
The body needs recovery time to avoid overtraining syndrome, and the mind needs a break to avoid burnout.
Intense Workouts without Rest: What Happens to the Body
If you don’t take enough rest after a workout or between workouts, what happens?
Spasms and cramps. Exercise too hard or for too long and your body can lose excessive fluid through sweat. This dehydration, including the loss of potassium, salt, and other nutrients, triggers the nerves that control the movement of your muscles. The nerves become over-sensitive, resulting in painful cramping—often, in the legs.
Overuse of a muscle can also fatigue and overtax it, resulting in a spasm. If you’ve ever done too many crunches in a row and experienced abdominal muscle spasms, you’ll understand what that’s like. Spasms take over, making the muscle hard, twitchy, and essentially unusable until the episode ends.
Spasms and cramps will eventually stop with rest, gentle stretching, and replenishment of fluids. However, in most situations, prevention is preferable than going through the discomfort (and sometimes agony) of an attack—especially for athletes participating in competitive sports or races.
Fascial adhesion. Fascia is the term for the sheaths of collagen-based connective tissue that encase our muscles like a thin wrapper. Fascia surround and support individual muscle fibers as well as bundles of muscles.
A normal, healthy fascia is made up of parallel strands of lubricated, flexible collagen. When we overexert ourselves and create tears in these strands, sometimes they heal incorrectly, becoming bunched up or tangled together instead of remaining smooth and parallel. Dehydrated, overworked fascia can also get sticky, causing different sheets of fascia to stick to each other or to surrounding tissue (old scar tissue, muscles, or skin). When fascia sticks to other fascia, or to surrounding tissue, we call this fascial adhesion.
These adhesions are a problem because they “gum up the works.” When damaged or sticky fascia heal incorrectly or adhere to each other, they create a place in the body where multiple layers of very strong collagen interconnect, often with the strands running in different directions. The space becomes overpacked, disorganized, yet very strong, almost as if reinforced—leading to tightness and a loss of flexibility.
Fascial adhesions often come with pain, burning, and tenderness at the site, especially when stretched. Adhesions also limit range of motion. They can present a serious challenge to athletic performance because they force the body to move differently—usually, inefficiently or dysfunctionally—to get around the problem. Performance can suffer, and so can posture and function. You may start out with a single tight area and end up with a domino effect of stresses and injuries as you move differently to compensate.
Rest is just one strategy for injury prevention. If you’re training hard, other proactive approaches can help to keep you loose and healthy. These include a healthy diet, hydration, regular stretching, massage, foam rolling, hot and cold therapy, and specialized therapeutic techniques that can be administered by physical therapists or orthopedists (including dry needling, the Graston technique, and electric stimulation, or e-stim).
Dr. Williams has been practicing orthopedic surgery in Corpus Christi since 1998. After graduating from Texas Tech hereceived his medical degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio. At the prestigious Campbell Clinic located at the University of Tennessee, Dr. Williams completed not only an Orthopedic Surgery Residency, but an additional year of Fellowship Training in Spine Surgery. Dr. Williams is dedicated to creating an excellent patient experience in the office or in the surgery suite.