Take a Break During Your Workout
Yes, we said during. A brief and strategic pause (or two) can give you an edge in the rest of your session.
Recovery isn't just about protein smoothies, foam rollers and rest days. If you want to get the most out of your muscles, you should be recovering during your workout.
"Think about half-time at a football game, a time-out in a basketball game or the brief rests in between rounds of a boxing match", says Alex Rothstein, the Exercise Science programme coordinator at the New York Institute of Technology and a certified strength and conditioning specialist. "All are considered mid-competition breaks that help reset a player's mind and body, without interfering with the rhythm of the game or match".
That last part is key: A mid-workout recovery, or "break", isn't permission to dawdle through your routine or scroll through your phone. It's a competitive strategy of dialling back your intensity at the right moments, whether you're doing steady-state cardio, strength training or HIIT, to get more out of the moments when you're pushing yourself.
"Think about half-time at a football game, a time-out in a basketball game or the brief rests in between rounds of a boxing match. All are considered mid-competition breaks that help reset a player's mind and body, without interfering with the rhythm of the game or match".
Exercise Science Programme Coordinator at the New York Institute of Technology and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Cruise Without the Crash
During endurance exercise, like a steady-state run or bike ride, mid-workout recovery can offset what's called "cardiovascular drift", a phenomenon where your heart rate gradually increases, even when the intensity of your workout doesn't. "This tends to happen during these types of workouts primarily because it's easier to get dehydrated", says Todd Buckingham, PhD, an exercise physiologist in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Without proper water intake, your heart might pump less blood with each beat, he says, which means it has to pump more frequently to supply enough blood and oxygen to your muscles. That can make your activity feel a lot harder than it actually is. Taking short "breaks" during a long run or ride (a break lasting, say, one to two minutes, and taken every eight or nine minutes during a workout of longer than an hour is typically sufficient) can lower your heart rate and therefore your rate of perceived exertion, he says. The result: You may end up racking up more kilometres or maintaining a faster pace.
If you're running, the most obvious way to incorporate mid-workout recovery is by slowing down to a walk. Research published in the "Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport" found that first-time marathoners who incorporated one-minute walking periods into their run reported less muscle pain and fatigue afterwards—and finished within a similar time frame to those who ran non-stop.
Either way, it typically makes the most sense for a quick reset to come at the halfway point of your workout, or slightly past that, says Rothstein, because fatigue only increases (and your performance might decrease) the longer you go. It's even better if you sip some water.
Lift Hard, Rest Easy
When you're working out, your body uses adenosine triphosphate and glucose for energy, says Rothstein. Both of these get depleted as you lift heavy weights, due to the elevated energy demand, but a short break can give your body the rest it needs to recover some of those supplies, he explains.
Plus, if you use that time wisely, "you can flush some waste products out of your muscles—mainly carbon dioxide and lactate—to help prepare them for the next set in your workout", says Rothstein. Before the hardest part of your workout and/or before your last big push, take five minutes to perform a few feel-good dynamic stretches, he says. Focus on gentle movements that use full range of motion and incorporate as many of the muscle groups you're training as possible, he says, like high-knee pulls (standing and squeezing one bent leg at a time towards your chest) for the lower body, or arm circles for the upper body. Or you could just walk around a bit between sets, which research has shown can help clear waste faster than sitting or sprawling on the bench does.
"You should be able to complete more reps or use a heavier weight, as well as maintain better form, than you would if you just sat still for your rest break", says Buckingham. You should also be set up to recover faster once your workout's over.
HIIT and Don't Quit
By definition, high-intensity interval training has mid-workout recovery built right in to its format, as it alternates between work and rest periods. The rest breaks are there so your heart rate can drop, resulting in the up-and-down heart-rate spikes that can improve your cardiorespiratory fitness. But just like with lifting, "these rest intervals also allow time for by-products to get cleared, which could otherwise build up too fast and prevent you from maintaining your effort", says Buckingham.
Obviously, every HIIT workout varies. For example, on the track, HIIT might look like three sets of four 400-metre sprints with one minute of rest between intervals, while a traditional Tabata bodyweight session is eight rounds of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. Whatever your workout is like, Rothstein says you want your rest period to be long enough that you're able to catch your breath and carry a conversation, but short enough that your muscles don't cool down, so you can jump back into your next round at full speed. To optimise your rest time, try standing with your hands on your knees; research from Western Washington University suggests this position may support better breathing, which can help you bounce back faster between work intervals.
However you use mid-workout recovery breaks, remember that the goal is to feel recharged so you can get the most out of yourself at the right moments. If at any point catching your breath makes you feel too relaxed to get back into it, play around with the length of your break until it feels just right. The more tuned in you can be to every aspect of your workout—even the pauses—the more rewards you'll reap, physically and mentally.