Whether it’s via a running coach, your partner, or perhaps this publication, chances are high that you’ve been instructed to “rest up” and “sleep more.”

While it’s easy to mash-up these concepts into one “take it easy” prescription, there’s actually a big difference between resting (from exercise) and sleeping (to recover and reboot your system after a day of physical and mental activity). We need both forms of recovery, but for different, albeit overlapping reasons.

“Excessive exposure to stress without the opportunity for adequate recovery can have a detrimental impact on overall health and wellbeing,” says Carissa Gardiner, a Ph.D. candidate within the Sports Performance, Recovery, Injury, and New Technologies (SPRINT) Research Centre at the Australian Catholic University in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. “Balancing your training load with sufficient sleep and mental recovery is essential to optimize performance and reduce the risk of overtraining.”

Falling short on sleep—which more than 35 percent of Americans regularly do, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)or rest can hamper your physical performance, increase risk for injuries, delay recovery, reduce immunity, influence your emotional state and more, says Haley Perlus, Ph.D., a sport and performance psychologist in Denver.

As a runner with goals on the horizon, preventing those side effects is paramount to performance.

This sounds simple in theory, but it can be quite difficult in practice, Gardiner admits. The plot thickens when you realize that you might be short on rest or sleep—or both. Ahead, discover the health benefits of sleep and rest, and how to get more and better quality of both to support your muscles, mind, and mood all at once.

The Health Benefits of Sleep

Sleep has a huge effect on our general quality of life, athletic performance, and overall health, Jacque Crockford, a San Diego-based certified personal trainer and senior product manager for the American Council on Exercise tells Runner’s World. Think of your pillow time similar to charging your cell phone that’s running low on battery. Your ideal recharge time, according to the National Sleep Foundation? Seven to nine hours per night.

Throughout these hours, your brain transitions through different stages of sleep including non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, Gardiner explains. Several important processes occur during this sleep cycle that allow for recovery from the time you just spent awake. If, at any point, you wake during this cycle, you may diminish the restorative benefits of sleep, Gardiner adds.

Flowing seamlessly though NREM and REM stages—which our bodies usually do four to six times each night:

  • Repairs and regenerates tissues, including muscle
  • Supports immune function
  • Enhances hormone function
  • Betters cognitive function, including memory consolidation, attention, and decision-making skills
  • Aids in heart health and blood sugar regulation

When we have enough solid, steady sleep, our body functions normally and we can better manage physical and mental stressors. A lack in quality or quantity of sleep can trigger a cascade of other mental and physical changes, Crockford says.

While you might recognize you’re not getting the quantity of sleep you need just by examining how much time you spend in bed, you’ll know you’re not getting quality sleep if it takes you more than a half hour to fall asleep most nights, you struggle with staying asleep throughout the night and wake up more than once, or you get up in the morning feeling groggy most days of the week, leading to daytime sleepiness.

This is a problem because insufficient sleep can impair mental and emotional regulation, Gardiner explains, leading to reduced ability to remember, learn, make decisions, and maintain your chipper mood. You may also experience compromised immune function and metabolism, which can increase your susceptibility to illness and may result in weight gain.

You’ll also experience physical ripple effects. In terms of athletic performance, “sleep is crucial, because it promotes muscle recovery, reduces injury and helps replenish energy stores necessary for high-intensity exercise,” Perlus says. “It also contributes to mental resilience, enabling athletes to maintain focus, reaction time, and strategic thinking during training and races.”

You need more sleep if... you regularly get less than seven hours per night, toss and turn throughout the night, or rarely wake up in the morning feeling refreshed.

The Health Benefits of Rest

Rest leads to results when it comes to running, lifting, and doing other exercise. Without rest during or between your workouts, you won’t score the same gains from sweat sessions—and you might put your health at risk.

Overtraining is very real and very common, especially in endurance athletes, explains Abigail Brown, CPT, MS in exercise physiology, and a certified personal trainer and clinical fitness specialist at Northwest Community Healthcare Wellness Center in Arlington Heights, Illinois. This is difficult to quantify, as “overtraining” can mean something different for every individual. But for a rough estimate, about 33 percent of non-elite athletes will overtrain at least once, according to a March 2012 study in the journal Sports Health.

With adequate rest, runners can experience increased energy levels, enhanced physical performance, reduced muscle soreness and stiffness, enhanced flexibility, better range of motion, as well as improved coordination, agility, and physical performance. Your stress and anxiety levels should also fall, and you may be able to focus and make quick decisions better, Perlus says.

In tandem, these downstream effects “create a positive cycle where we can then sleep better and continue on a positive health journey,” Crockford adds.

Resting can come in a few different forms:

Rest days: “Running can be harsh on the body, and pounding pavement every day isn’t the answer to getting better, faster, and stronger. Even the pros take rest days,” Brown says. Full rest days mean no activity beyond daily tasks and maybe a low-key walk. This allows your muscles to recover on a molecular and cellular level. Ideally, you’ll have one full rest day per week.

➥ Active recovery days: Instead of running day after day, sprinkling in mild to moderate cross-training days (such as walking, yoga, mobility, swimming, or cycling) can allow your joints to take it easy as your muscles get challenged in a different, lighter way. In a perfect world, non-elite athletes will disperse one to two active recovery days into each week of training.

➥ Rest within a workout: If you’ve ever done a speed workout, you know the drill; you’ll run-walk or run-rest so you can push harder during the “on” phase. “Each time you rest between sprints or heavy lifts, you allow your muscle cells to refuel with the oxygen it needs to perform again. This trains our muscles to replenish oxygen quickly, especially while at work, which can boost our performance level over time,” Brown says.

You need more rest if... You never take a full rest day, notice decreases in performance or energy (without a change in sleep), have slower-than-usual recovery, feel more intense soreness or stiffness after workouts, or regularly find it difficult to focus.

How to Make Any Day More Restful (Even if You Don’t Have More Time for Sleep)

Certain sleep-promoting habits, including sticking to a set schedule, getting regular (but not too much) physical activity, avoiding heavy meals, alcohol, caffeine, and electronics before bed, and setting up your bedroom to optimize sleep can help you score more shut-eye.

But if it’s rest you need rather than sleep—or you don’t have time at the moment to adjust your schedule for more snooze time—try any or all of these ideas to add more rest into even the busiest of days.

Stepping away from something you’re focusing on, even in intervals as short as five to 10 minutes, can increase feelings of calm, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Perlus recommends using this time to stretch, listen to music, or practice a hobby. “By refocusing attention, these techniques enable you to consciously minimize the impact of stress and muscle tension,” Gardiner says.

Rather than waiting until after work, Gardiner suggests adding these breaks into your day. “Building relaxation techniques into your schedule allows for regular practice, which may enhance the benefit,” she says.

Embarking on a five-minute walk, especially outside, has been shown to improve mood and concentration while reducing levels of stress and anxiety. Can’t get away? Take a stroll around the office or take a quick movement break at your desk.

“Taking five minutes to stretch or just sit quietly and focus on your breathing is also a great way to calm the nervous system and help the body come back to homeostasis,” Crockford says.

Incorporating mindfulness throughout the day can infuse slightly more relaxation into anxiety-provoking hours and help reduce overall stress levels. After eight weeks of daily 13-minute meditation sessions, participants in a January 2019 study in Behavioural Brain Research reported stronger attention, fewer negative emotions, reduced anxiety, and stronger memory.

The benefits go beyond our mental and emotional state, too. Meditation can also target the physical stress response in the body, which you might also hear referred to as “fight-or-flight.” “When we remove our mind from the outside distractions, our body responds by slowing down and reversing the typical stress response: lowering heart rate, lowering breathing rate, relaxing muscles, and slowing down brain waves,” Brown says.

If sitting and meditating isn’t your thing, focus on a deep breathing practice. Paying attention to inhales and exhales gives you a focus and research shows deep breathing can lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Experts recommend box breathing. To do it, inhale slowly through the nose while counting up to four, hold that breath for four seconds, then slowly exhale out the mouth for four. Hold for a final four seconds, then repeat this flow.

How to Improve Both Your Sleep and Your Rest

Need more rest and sleep? Take a power nap. Napping can be effective to help reset the nervous system, Perlus says, all while serving as a valuable supplement to your sleep schedule when you’re unable to accrue the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

The ideal length and time of day for a nap can vary widely, but as a general rule, a mid-afternoon (between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.) nap between 20 to 90 minutes might be enough to improve cognitive function, mood, alertness and physical performance, Gardiner says.

“Napping too close to bedtime can interfere with nighttime sleep, so avoid napping in the evening. While longer naps can be beneficial, be cautious about sleeping too long. Lengthy naps beyond 90 minutes can lead to sleep inertia, causing grogginess and disorientation upon waking,” Perlus explains.

After napping, Brown suggests giving yourself time to wake up fully before resuming activities—particularly those that require a quick or sharp response or speedy reflexes.

Headshot of Karla Walsh

Karla Walsh is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer and level one sommelier who balances her love of food and drink with her passion for fitness. (Or tries to, at least!) Her writing has been published in Runner’s World and Fitness Magazines, as well as on Shape.com, EatThis.com, WomensHealthMag.com, and more.

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