It’s no surprise that Crossfit is taxing on the body. Explosive movements, high repetitions, Olympic lifting, and sprint-style cardio really add up to wear you out! Crossfit programming even has an Rx of 1 day off for every 3 days of training. While this number varies by the athlete, their training intensity, lifestyle preferences, and recovery capacity, rest is a crucial component of the total package.
Let’s start with the obvious stuff – you need to be well rested to perform. When you are tired, you perform poorly. But I’m not talking about the importance if sleep here – I think we all understand what sleep does for the body – and you should be doing this every night anyway. I am talking about the importance of a day off training completely.
It can be easy to get caught up in going to Crossfit every day – it happened to me when I first started! I was so excited to come to class each night after work, that I accidentally went for 10 days in a row. I think the obsession distracted me from how tired and sore I really was. Taking a day off, you don’t miss out on anything – you actually have a lot to gain from it!
The importance of a rest day
Don’t know what to do with yourself during a rest day? Consider it a part of your training and reprogram your mindset – and you wouldn’t skip a training day. Going hard “all day every day” may actually hinder your progress! Here’s why:
- Taking a day off allows you keep your intensity up on your actual training days. Even if you take an active rest day (light movements that are not taxing), you are giving your body a break from high exertion so you can give it your best on the days you do go to the gym. This will differ for everyone, but at some point you will begin to sacrifice quality and intensity and increase your risk of injury as you get tired. It’s hard to keep good form when you’re exhausted!
- Rest days give you time to focus on recovery activities, such as mobility work, stretching, foam rolling, and straight up relaxing. We aren’t all good about building this stuff into our daily lives – so giving yourself a day off to fit it in can really help. I personally benefit from doing this on a rest day, since I tend to run out of time on training days to devote enough effort to mobility.
- A day of rest offers a “mental break” from training – a day to clear your head, if you will, to get back into things in the right mindset and start fresh. Think about when you take a moment away from your desk, or a problem, and come back later to tackle it – you’re able to focus, and have a clean slate to work from. Same idea in the gym – you’re resetting your mind so you can jump back in at 100%.
- Your body repairs itself while you sleep (in the stage right before REM sleep), during which time your anabolic hormones help facilitate protein synthesis and cell turnover. However, unless you are eating protein rich foods (or a slow digesting protein like casein) right before bed, your body will likely run out of amino acids to continue reparation at a high rate all night long. Taking a rest day gives you ample time to eat nourishing foods all day while continuing to repair your body with all necessary building blocks – without creating more damage.
- Cortisol levels increase during training, and fluctuate throughout the day, but sleep helps regulate those levels back down – which helps aid things like proper protein synthesis. In addition to sleep, a rest day gives your body a break from potentially producing too much cortisol if you tax your body over time.
How high intensity training adds up
It’s fun to think you can blow off rest days and keep trucking, but sooner rather than later you’re due for an injury or straight up overtraining. What happens to the body during high intensity training?
- HIIT increases your body’s need for immediate oxygen during your workout. This need doesn’t stop after you’re done training – your body will continue to require more oxygen during recovery, too! This is called “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption“. If you constantly train and don’t give yourself ample time to rest, you’ll never catch up.
- After an intense workout, your body is busy restoring muscle glycogen reserves for the next training day, returning the body temperature back down to normal, getting oxygen levels where they need to be, and repairing damaged tissues. You need time to let these things happen! In addition, your body needs enough glucose to aid its recovery – rest days are great for replenishing carb sources and eating well!
- High intensity training is designed to stress the body out to force it to adapt – it increases stress hormones (like cortisol), growth hormones, testosterone, and adrenaline to help give you short bursts of energy. These, in turn, put your body into a short “defensive state” while you work out. While all this is supposed to happen during HIIT, you need to let your body recover back down to homeostasis before going at it again or these levels will build up. We all know elevated cortisol is bad for us long term!
- HIIT is performed between 80% and 95% of your maximal heart rate – that’s really high! As a result, your central nervous system (CNS) gets very taxed during bouts of high intensity training – so it’s crucial to let yourself recover. Depending on your intensity levels, this can take up to 48 hours.
Crossfit is a beautiful blend of high intensity Tabata style training, mixed with Olympic lifting, gymnastics, endurance training, and calisthenics. Even on days that aren’t as HIIT heavy, it’s rare to find a Crossfitter who doesn’t go “all out” no matter what.
We put a lot of stress on our bodies – so do yourself a favor and go all out on your next rest day!