The holidays: that special time of year when health and fitness is at the back of everyone’s mind.
“That’s a 2018 problem,” they say.
But you disagree. You’re committed. I mean, you haven’t made all these sacrifices (the early mornings, eating right, fast days, protein shakes, going for a run instead of binge watching Netflix) for nothing.
The thought of throwing it all down the toilet while you’re away visiting family – or on a beach in Mexico, if you’re lucky – can be anxiety-inducing. You just can’t handle staying out of the gym that long.
I know these people: people that haven’t gone more than two consecutive days without working out.
These are also the people that plateaued ages ago.
They come in every day lifting the same amount of weight and setting the treadmill to the same speed they always have. Nothing changes.
What are they missing? Adequate recovery.
Taking a week off from the gym and letting yourself fully recover mentally and physically won’t negate everything you’ve worked for so far; in fact, it’ll make you stronger.
Maybe you’re so committed to the gym that just reading that sentence gave you a sour, bitter taste in your mouth.
But, please, just hear me out.
Read on and you’ll find out why you need a recovery week (spoiler: it has a lot to do with avoiding the danger of overtraining) and how to do a recovery week properly.
We’re in the middle of December – there’s shopping to do, family to visit, trips to go on, and parties to go to.
Due to all the craziness, this is the perfect time to plan your week off.
Trust me, your body and mind will thank you for it.
Why you need a recovery week
While you may think you’re withering away, getting slower and sloppier the more days you’re away from the gym, nothing could be further from the truth.
First off, inadequate rest can have a severe consequence: overtraining syndrome.
Overtraining syndrome happens when you’ve gone too hard for too long.
With overtraining syndrome, all the things you need to grow, build, and increase fitness – protein synthesis, proper hormone production, cellular energy – slow down. Your body goes into protection and survival mode.
From a progress perspective, this is the worst place you can be.
You need enough rest to prevent overtraining and keep your body in growth mode.
Extended breaks from training also provide a mental lift – the brain is arguably the most important organ involved in performance – and trigger powerful physical and biochemical changes aiding improvements in fitness in the long run.
Exercise places stress on the body. It’s this stress that initiates adaptation and increases fitness.
While exercise is the time for stress, recovery is the time for adaptation; one cannot happen without the other.
Its during recovery that important biochemical, neural, and hormonal changes occur: these change your body so you can lift more, or run further, next time.
If you short change your recovery, you don’t allow these changes to have their full effect. It’s kind of like paying for an hour massage and leaving after 30 minutes – you made the investment, why not stay for the full benefit?
While an extended break may seem counterintuitive, it can help stave off the harmful effects of overtraining (helping you push passed plateaus), it provides a mental lift, and it allows the body to positively recover from the stresses of exercise.
Enough rest could be what’s missing from your regular routine that will push you to the next level.
How to take a recovery week
When I talk about taking a week off from working out, or other types of intense activity, I don’t mean completely throwing caution to the wind, parking on the couch, and eating Cheetos until you can no longer tell the difference between your natural skin color and the pigment of Cheeto dust.
Of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to take a body vacation.
The right way depends on two things: timing and your behavior during the recovery week.
Step 1: Schedule your week off
Ideally, it’s in the midst of the holiday season at a time when it’s going to be difficult to get into the gym anyways: when you’re away, family is over, or maybe your gym actually closes down for a stretch during the holidays.
Knowing when you’re going to be on break also allows you to plan your workouts accordingly. You want to be ramping up the intensity until your recovery week.
Step 2: Nutrition
Yes, you still need to eat well.
While your body is trying to recover and repair itself it needs proper fuel and nutrition – antioxidants, protein, BCAAs, etc.
Step 3: Light activity
It’s a good thing to get out and do something light, but you shouldn’t do an activity that you normally do intensely.
For example, a runner shouldn’t go out for a light jog; they’d be better off with a walk or a bike ride.
Doing something too similar may trigger the competitive part of your brain – we are creatures of habit after all. A runner trying to take a light jog may feel the motivation to try best their usual time once they start moving. Or, maybe, they’ll think they aren’t getting anything out of the run if they’re not going as fast, or as far, as they usually go.
Keep it simple, keep it light, and make it different.
Taking time off for rest may seem like blasphemy, but some much needed R and R may be exactly what you need to come back in the new year feeling stronger and better than ever.
Trust the science and trust the process. A well thought out recovery week will do you good.