More is not Always More – The Importance of Rest and Recovery

By Pia Johansson

Your body is your temple. As active moms, we know that we need to look after our bodies in order to feel good and strong, and to be healthy for ourselves and our families. And we know that this involves exercise and healthy foods. In my running group (the Über Mom Runners), motivation is high and everyone manages to get out there a lot, despite all the everyday hurdles. And exercise and running are great for goals, eustress (ie good stress), and a sense of accomplishment. But sometimes it’s easy to forget the second part of exercise: we also need to take the time to restore and rest. Love yourself enough to allow for rest and recovery!

Allowing yourself to rest comes in two vital parts.

  1. The mental aspect:
    It is important to mentally allow yourself to relax, to not run. Just because there is a 30 minute window doesn’t mean you have to get out there. Read a book if you can, or go for a walk if you need to get out of the house. These are worthwhile, allowed activities as well. Allow yourself, love yourself; do not feel guilty.
  2. The physical aspect:
    Rest is crucial for recovery, staying injury-free, health, and for performance.

Interestingly, a lot of elite athletes suffer from over-training. Sure, these athletes train a lot, but surely elite athletes have coaches who should know better. But it just goes to show it’s a tricky business. Because more is not more! In running, a commonly seen quote is “You should run as little as you can and still win the race,” or in our case, meet our goals. I find this very interesting and thought-provoking. Obviously, in order to win anything, one has to put in a lot of effort, but at some point that becomes too much and the body can’t keep up.

So, what happens when you overtrain? Or, let’s start with what happens when you exercise. Each time you do vigorous exercise, the body breaks down a little bit and you get microtears in your muscles. This is why you get sore after you train hard or do something new. But then the body rebuilds the muscle and even responds to the new demands and makes you a little bit stronger or better than before. However, the catch is that this process takes a certain amount of time, and if you do not allow the recovery to finish (i.e. you do strenuous exercise before the rebuild is done), there is no increase in strength, maybe even a small decrease, leading to increased risk of injury and lack of improvement and performance. And at this point it is easy to think you might need to train even more and harder, which will actually make things worse. More is not always more! Of course, everyone recovers a different speeds and there is no magic formula, so you need to look out for the signs (more on those below), and listen to your body.

But not only does over-training mess with your goal achievement and possibly cause injury, it might also set you up for increased susceptibility to infections and viruses, in particular, respiratory tract infections. This is partly because immediately after exercise, there is a small transient decrease in immune function, which leaves you more susceptible for infection. Being generally compromised, as in worn-down and tired ,also suppresses your immune system. This is, of course, the absolute opposite of what you would like to achieve with a motivated and active lifestyle, so it’s worth keeping in mind.

So as you can see, exercise is a stressor for your body (that’s how you increase performance by telling your body you need more oomph), and therefore you need to help it recover by supplying rest and fuel (adequate nutrient intake). Other things that tend to increase the risk of overtraining or even just a good old “wearing you down,” are other body stressors such as general life stress, sleep disruption, environmental extremes and poor nutrition. Since we are moms we know that numbers one and two on this list is pretty common place (I mean, who sleeps properly, really?). So even though running in winter is great, heavy interval sessions are maybe better left for the milder days of winter and on the treadmill. And what it also means is, take it a little bit easy, we are not full time elite athletes we have other jobs as well. So use exercise as a way to build and strengthen yourself physically and mentally, but don’t let it become (another) stressor on your body or on your mind.

So what are the signs of overtraining? Common signs include: feeling washed-out, tired, drained, lack of energy, heavy legs, decreased performance and training capacity, decreased immunity (increased number of sore throats, coughs and colds) and an increased number or sustained injuries. When things become a little bit more serious, you can add decreased desire to do the sport and then even general moodiness and irritability. Obviously, overtraining is the not the only cause for any of these things and the overall situation must be considered. Persistent injuries, malaise or fatigue should, of course, be brought to the attention of a medical practitioner.

So what to do about it? Well, for once there is an easy fix. Exercise less! Less intensity, fewer miles and/or fewer days per week. Severe overtraining syndrome, which usually befalls professional athletes, can take months to recover from, but for most it’s more of a mild version. So at first, just throw in a few extra rest days (I am assuming you actually have rest days). See how you feel. Or don’t run for a week, if that’s easier. I am not saying you can’t run everyday; some people can, but you have to listen to your body to find out if you are one of them or not. You might also say, “I am following a training plan, I can’t be over-training,” but yes, you could be. First, did you choose the right plan, fitting your current fitness level and speed and a realistic goal (dropping your PB by 30 minutes is not a realistic goal, for example)? Secondly, these plans are often made for men (or by men), and as such might not always be suitable for women (different recovery times, hormone levels and such), and thirdly, even if you did choose correctly in terms of pace and goals, it might not be right for you! If you feel your plan is too hard, look for another one with a slightly different approach, amend it a little or just make your own. I myself have never used someone else’s plan (but of course I also haven’t run that many races), and planning my training is one of the many things I love about running. Additionally, you don’t have to run four or five times week even if you have big goals, you can even train for a marathon with three runs per week.

So don’t worry, rest and recovery will not interfere with your training, goals or general well-being. It might, however, make you stronger and fitter. So go out there, have fun, dream big, train hard and rest. You deserve it.

Pia Johansson is a research scientist in neurobiology, mother of two and working mum. She was an expat for almost twenty years, in Australia and Munich and a short wild stint in Dublin many many years ago. She is in the throes of being repatriated to Sweden with her Australian husband. She likes talking, running and talking about running. And chocolate (although mostly 85% these days, as crazy as that sounds). In addition to staying fit and eating healthy, and raising happy healthy children, she dreams of doing something a little bit creative like writing or becoming a photographer. Or at least organizing her photos soon.

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