When should you take a day off?
When I write training plans for people, one of the most important questions I have is, "What's your goal?"
If the goal is competition or to get faster, there should be at least one day of rest incorporated into their training plan. If the goal is to get fitter and stronger, I might still recommend at least one day off each week, if not for physical reasons, but for mental reasons.
Finally, if the goal is to simply maintain health, I may or may not incorporate a day off. Why?
Because most people (that's about 90% of the non-athletic types) don't do enough in the first place to warrant a day off!
Either their frequency is too infrequent (only 1-3 days/week), their intensity is too low (all easy, blue zone kind of effort), or their duration is too short (only 15-30 minutes). Add that all up and you aren't putting a dent in what you're supposed to be doing to maintain health. (For reference, the ACSM states a minimum of 5-6 days, moderate intensity (yellow zone), 30-60 minutes.)
What's the significance of taking a day off?
Taking a rest day, or "recovery day" is a way for the body to get stronger. Contrary to what many people think, we do not get stronger when we do our workout. In fact, the opposite is true. When we exercise, whether it's strength training or cardiovascular training, we actually put our body through physical stress and our muscles break down. For example, when you lift heavy weights, your muscles "shred" a bit. But, when you rest your muscles (overnight, 24 or 48 hours), they will repair themselves, and will become stronger. This is why people who do regular strength training will alternate training their legs with arms every other day. This allows the muscles 48 hours within which to repair themselves. With repeated exercise and rest, you should expect to get stronger.
Conversely, the the individual who trains day after day after day, without rest, will continually "shred" their muscles in a cycle of overtraining, and fitness gains will deteriorate.
Cross training has been shown to be effective, allowing individuals to continue to train most days, if not every day of the week. You can swim Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and ride your bike on the other days successfully because swimming uses mostly upper body muscles, and cycling uses mostly lower body muscles.
So, it really comes back to the goal. If your goal is to get faster for competition, you should consider a full day off, or a day of easy cross training. If your goal is to simply maintain fitness, you may be successful training every day, as long as you use different body parts so that the muscles have adequate time to repair.
I think there's a lot to be said for the stress reduction gained by taking a day off. Giving yourself permission to take a day off may take the pressure off other demands on your time. You'll have a full day to spend with the family, work, get household chores done, complete a special project, and so forth. Additionally, planning for a day off, allows you the flexibility to make up for workouts that did not get done during the week, perhaps because life or work tossed you a curveball.
Finally, I have to refer to the article by Dr. Carl Foster. Read this excellent article here. http://www.athletemonitoring.com/about-overtraining.html
In Dr. Foster's words:
- Why stand when you can sit?
- Why sit when you can lie down?