CrossFit is fun. Lots of fun. So much fun that people usually don’t want to take a break from it. Many addicted CrossFitters work out six days and then run a 10k and do some heavy deadlifts for “active recovery” on the seventh day. But hey…no pain, no gain, right? And if exercise is good, then more is better, right?
The annoying thing about athletic training is that you don’t get stronger during a workout, but afterward. It’s during the repair process when the body says to itself, “Hey, she keeps making us deadlift heavy things. We should divert more resources to the hamstrings to make this process easier next time.” The body adapts to what we make it do, but only if we give it time to recover. This is why rest days are so important. During a rest day hormones finally get a chance to balance out and muscle tissue has time to repair. Let’s dive a little deeper into these to explain why that extra workout isn’t necessarily a good idea.
Whenever you get your heart rate up, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. This is the main hormone that is responsible for that hyper alert, strong feeling you get while you work out. Your blood vessels dilate to allow blood to flow more freely, adrenaline is released, and energy is diverted to your muscles to allow them to hit peak performance. So why doesn’t our body just always operate at this level? The problem is that the extra energy has to come from somewhere, and while cortisol is flooding your bloodstream, your digestion, immune response and tissue repair all get the short end of the stick.
If, for example, you are running from a bear, the negative after affects of the cortisol burst on your breakfast digestion are irrelevant…not something you think about when you’re in survival mode. Things even out after a few bear-free days. But if you’re constantly running from the bear (as in you are WODing every day with no rest days; it’s a metaphor, see?), you’re constantly being pumped full of cortisol. That means that digestion, immune response, tissue repair, and more are all given a reduced priority. Your body will keep going for awhile this way, but eventually your adrenaline glands just kind of shrug and say, “..nope.” This is called adrenal fatigue, and it means no more Superman feeling during workouts. Testosterone and estrogen production also get super screwy with long term cortisol exposure, meaning much less, if any, muscle growth. And if you’ve been going weeks and weeks with little or no time off, muscle repair has been on a back burner for the duration, which means the muscle you do have are not in great shape.
The inevitable outcome of no rest: injuries. The worst thing for a CrossFitter to hear is something like “no overhead movements for two weeks.” Or even more terrible, “no squatting for the next month.” When these words come out of the mouth of a qualified healthcare provider, unfortunately, it’s often ignored with excuses like, “It’s just a little twingey, that’s all…” or “It only hurts when I put weight on it.”
If you don’t let an injury heal, the only thing for it to do is get worse. You can push through the pain. You can also try working out with torn labrums and herniated disks. But it won’t go well, and at some point you’ll be forced to stop (because your body won’t let you go on). And that will suck way more than if you had taken a couple of days off instead of pushing through.
In all of my self-education, I find again and again that the best coaches are *NOT* the ones who know how to push their athletes harder. Many athletes and CrossFit addicts are a little crazy; they are willing to push themselves to utter exhaustion for another rep or to finish three seconds faster. Not for millions of dollars. Or any dollars. They do it just to prove that they can. So the best coaches are the ones who can train athletes to know when to hold back; the ones who can convince their athletes to take weight off the bar and not go as fast during a deload week.
I used to go for six days straight, but now I take two days off every week. I’ve started doing deload weeks on a regular basis as well. And not only have I continued to grow stronger and improve, but I’ve also started feeling better overall. Who’d have thought?
CrossFit is fun and rewarding. There’s no question about that. It’s why we keep coming back day after day. But more is not always better. So the next time a rest day rolls around, go for a walk. Spend time with family and friends. Try some yoga (conveniently offered on Thursday evenings as a part of your 8035 membership). You can move, but take it easy and let repair and recovery have it’s moment. Then come back the next day and kick some ass!
Full disclosure: I am not a doctor, physical therapist, or any other kind of licensed medical practitioner. I am simply a Level 1 CrossFit Trainer who spends a lot of time reading and researching everything and anything that relates to athletic performance, including sports injury prevention and recovery. If a more qualified individual is treating you and tells you to do something that conflicts with views I present in this article, feel free to mention my viewpoint, but in the end, you should probably follow his or her advice.