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Recovery: The secret weapon

Rest, unrest, training and detraining: Why a lack of activity can be as important as a workout


The 70-something-year-old walked most days. One time, halfway up a long steep hill on a new route, the heart rate shot up and breathing became problematic. Stopping to rest was clearly the right choice. Soon, resuming a slower, steady pace, the walk was completed with no adverse effects.

It’s imperative we recover from everyday physical activities. These include not only exercise, especially long and/or hard competition event, but activity associated with a regular work day.

Halfway through a grueling marathon, the runner’s pace was clearly too fast. Slowing slightly allowed recovery from those early miles, and completing the race as a personal best.

Exercise is usually associated with higher heart rates. This routine breaks down the body. Recovery builds it back up, making both active and passive rest as important as the workout itself. It’s important for everyone from the most extreme athletes to those just beginning their fitness journey.

As most people know, recovery from physical activity requires physical rest. Likewise, for our mental functions. Consider intensely working on writing an article, learning a piano piece or studying for a test. Sometimes, just breaking away for a few minutes, then revisiting the activity can improve the cognitive process. Active rest may involve very low level/low stress (minimal rise in resting heart rate) natural physical activity such as easy walking, or moving around the house or office while working. In other cases, actually resting to the point of detraining may be an essential part of the recovery process.

Unfortunately, too many miss the mark and don’t reach their max human potential due to poor recovery from previous physical or mental activities. Educational programs can miss the mark, athletes fail to perform up to potential, executives may not be at the top of their game.  Even relatively simple workout may require rest.

The Training Equation

My long-standing training equation remains simple and accurate:

Training = Workout + Rest

Overtraining can result with reduced rest when not balanced with reduced workout time and/or intensity.

Sleep is a key

Sleep-impaired people are everywhere. Since sleep is a key part of recovery, poor sleep can quickly lead to a lack of recovery.

Poor recovery also can occur due to the limited timeframe of sleeping — such as being unable to reach a minimal threshold of seven hours. This can occur when we have a hard time falling asleep. Others have a lower quality of sleep because it’s unrestful, typically by waking in the middle of the night and not falling right back to sleep.


Some people have combinations of these poor recovery signs. Regardless, poor recovery means we don’t rest, and instead, unrest. A thesaurus has many appropriate words for this such as discontent, conflict, turmoil, disorder and anxiousness.

The CEO was on overdrive with work, had a busy family, and a hidden insatiable need for sleep. His longer, more intense periods of productive days required even more recovery —as much as a professional Ironman triathlete in the peak of training. Not getting it in time could lead to overtraining; or, as they say in the corporate world, burnout.

In our no-pain, no-gain world, we tend to think that rest is rust, rust never sleeps, we can sleep on the weekend, or whatever the notions. It’s as illogical as believing we’re tough enough to get by with less sleep.

Excessive rest, however, is associated with poor physical activity, and is also a component of detraining (discussed later).

The reality, though, is that proper rest actually makes us stronger.

Want Strength? Lay down!

This reality is worth repeating: Rest makes us stronger, physically and mentally. That’s because recovery from a workout allows the body to build itself up more than before. The longer or harder the workout, the more recovery is needed to accomplish this task. For example, recovery from a 45-minute easy walk is almost immediate, just a few minutes for a healthy, fit person. The same amount of time running could take up to 24 hours, with a longer or more intense run up to 48 hours. A hard weight-lifting workout could take 72 hours. And a tough race or other competitive event could take days or even weeks, especially when recovery from a whole season of competitive events is needed.

Sometimes we have an acute need for rest, and can usually take it, reaping the benefits. However, there are too many cases where we can’t recover from our day on a regular basis, especially because we don’t sleep well. Maybe this should read: Want strength? Sleep!

Sleeping is our most effective remedy for rest and recovery.


Detraining itself must be in balance with training. It’s the extremes that are particularly harmful. Those who are physically inactive are detraining — getting more out of shape each day. In these cases, detraining is harmful.

Those who are in extreme sports often require so much recovery time that they cannot keep up with it, which can lead to overtraining. For those preparing for, and recovering from, grueling competitive events like the Ironman triathlon, a tough ultramarathon, or even a whole season of individual or team competitive sports, recovery may mean benefiting by going into a state of little if any exercise — or detraining. This involves longer periods of rest and recovery, beyond sleeping well. In these cases, detraining is helpful. It’s an off season.

MAF Tests

During periods of healthy detraining, athletes will lose some aerobic conditioning. This is expected. For example, a marathoner whose MAF Test was five minutes 40 seconds per mile before the big race, will lose some of this during a longer recovery process. A month later they may have an MAF Test of 6:00 or in two months 6:25. However, by remaining healthy during this period of detraining, restoration of this aerobic conditioning will return quickly. (Healthy food in particular is vital during proper recovery.)

An important reminder is about when recovery from a workout begins — actually during the last part of one’s workout. This should be an active cool-down, or warm-down, where the last 12 or more minutes of the workout is a slowing of intensity monitored by heart rate. It provides great physiological benefits such as promoting circulatory changes, metabolic effects, further increasing fat-burning, and others all in preparation to the inactive part of recovery.

While we can’t get more fit without working out, finding the most appropriate way to recover – while remaining healthy — is a key to increased fitness.