Muscle recovery and stretching – how often to exercise and what is overtraining?

The importance of rest for health and hypertrophy

If you think you leave the gym stronger than you came in, you’re wrong. Technically speaking, you’re leaving the workout weaker because you’ve depleted your energy stores and even slightly “damaged” your muscles (in a good way). You’re only stronger one to three days after a workout if you’ve given your body enough nutrition and rest.

The workout itself is a highly debated topic, whether it’s the technique or combination of exercises, the length of the workout, or the appropriate number of sets and reps. The right amount of diet, healthy foods, timing and number of portions, etc. are also discussed. Rest, on the other hand, is often neglected, even though it is an absolutely necessary condition for physical health and improved fitness.

While it’s true that everyone can rest, that doesn’t mean you can’t rest better or even speed up your recovery in different ways. If you have a sedentary job, sitting at home for an extra six hours in front of the TV or computer is not a happy form of rest. On the other hand, if you have a physically demanding job, an evening on the couch won’t do any harm, but it might be beneficial to include some light stretching of the muscle groups that are most stressed at work.

Before I start listing ways to improve your rest, it must be acknowledged that science has not yet reached a clear and decisive conclusion about the effect of these activities.

The conclusions of larger studies and meta-studies show that stretching and foam roller massage, for example, slightly reduce the likelihood of injury during a workout, as well as reducing muscle soreness and fatigue after a workout. However, these effects are in the units of percentages, so unfortunately we cannot rule out that the effect is marginal or comparable to a placebo effect.

Stretching, massage and other recovery aids

The primary purpose of stretching (stretching) is to extend range of motion, which is not the topic of this article, but a nice side effect of stretching muscles after exercise is to relieve muscle soreness and fatigue both immediately after exercise and in the days following.

Whether it’s placebo or not, my personal experience and that of my clients speak in favor of this effect. When I stretch honestly after a hard strength training session, I feel much better. The same is true when I experience significant muscle soreness or stiffness a day (or more) after a hard workout. By stretching for at least a little while on rest days, I reduce the intensity and duration of muscle soreness, so I definitely recommend regular light stretching to everyone.

A less strenuous and usually more pleasant method is massage. If done correctly, muscle massage can have positive effects on both recovery and mental well-being. Thus, the effect is similar to that after stretching, but achieved in a different way. During the massage, external pressure and movement is applied to the muscles, which helps to release tension and stiffness and improves circulation.

For a good quality massage it is of course best to see an experienced massage therapist or physiotherapist, but if you want to save time and money there are other options. In addition to asking someone to massage you, there are also tools you can use to massage yourself without help.

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For example, a foam roller is very popular today, which is relatively inexpensive and practical, unlike some other overpriced products. With the roller, you can roll your muscles all over your body and enjoy the benefits of massage whenever you want for free.

Of course, you need to know how to use the roller properly, otherwise you may not get the desired effect, or theoretically, you may even make it worse. However, this is true for any massage as well as stretching, so in any case, you will need to devote some time to learning the correct techniques and follow them consistently.

How to tell overtraining from muscle fatigue

Lack of adequate rest manifests itself in different ways depending on the circumstances. Those who do not lead an active life and rest only passively put themselves at risk for back pain, poor posture, muscle laxity and stiffness. Those who do not get enough sleep also expose themselves to health problems in addition to mental and physical fatigue, because sufficient and good quality sleep is a basic necessity of life.

Overtraining, or a condition where physical exertion builds up and muscles wear out faster than the body can regenerate them, is a special case. The vast majority of the population need not worry about this danger, but for avid or novice athletes it is a real danger.

The first thing to determine is whether it is indeed overexertion or if the problem lies elsewhere. If your muscles ache intensely from training, but otherwise everything is fine and the pain goes away after a few days, your body is probably just getting used to a different kind of load (a new exercise, a new way of training).

Symptoms of overtraining include, besides muscle pain, general fatigue, laziness, moodiness and especially a deterioration in sports performance.

Whereas with regular intensive training one should, on the contrary, get stronger, prolonged stagnation (not to be confused with occasional unsuccessful training!) or deterioration of performance is a sign of insufficient rest.

If you feel that your problems stem from overtraining, but you are sleeping long enough and eating properly, you have no choice but to ease up on your training or skip one workout a week. Just to give you an idea, if you’ve been doing sports for a while and you train less than an hour and a half six times a week, the problem is probably not overtraining, but somewhere else.

Sleep, rest day, active rest

We’ve already mentioned the ways in which recovery can be improved, but what remains to be added are a few principles and advice regarding rest itself.

The most important thing is sleep, its quantity, quality and regularity. Sleep is an absolutely crucial necessity of life, which is important only after breathing and hydration.

We can go for a month without food, whereas we can only go for a few days without sleep (then hallucinations and nightmares occur). However, many people take sleep lightly, just as a necessity.

In my opinion, the recommended 8 hours of sleep is the standard that every active person should follow.

Some claim that 5 or 6 hours a day is perfectly sufficient and satisfactory for them, but in the long run, you simply cannot avoid your biology. If you are one of those people who sleep little and tend not to sleep longer, I think it’s a good idea to try to stick to at least 7 hours, otherwise you are depriving yourself not only of physical recovery, but also of concentration, sharpness of judgment, good memory and overall optimal brain performance.

If you have a sedentary job, do little walking during the weekdays, and do sports only sporadically, it’s a good idea to include some form of active rest in your regime.

Generally this is any movement that is not too strenuous and that you enjoy to give you a mental break.

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It can be a walk, light yard work, a game in the pool, or even a leisurely swim where you’re not trying to chase speed or distance. Anything that involves moving instead of sitting or lying down counts. Active rest is also good if you play a lot of sports, because blood flow and flexing muscles helps recovery and prevents stiffness.

The last point I would like to mention is the inclusion of a ‘rest day’, a day when you just rest (passively or actively). This is of course only important for people who frequently train (or physically work hard) with the intention of increasing their performance.

Training every day can accumulate fatigue and wear and tear that the body simply doesn’t have time to recover from, so having at least one day a week where you switch off and skip exertion can only help. For one thing, you’ll recharge your batteries and be better able to cope with subsequent workouts, and for another, you’ll reduce the risk of an injury that could sideline you for up to a month.

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