NO DAYS OFF!!! It’s a meme, it’s a hashtag, and it’s a point of honour among many advocates of fitness and martial arts training.
But this approach can really get you into a heap of trouble if you take it too seriously.
I know this because I’ve been there many times, most recently on my 1000 mile solo canoe trip in the Arctic.
On that trip I absolutely crushed myself. Driven by the calendar and the necessity finishing the trip in a specific amount of time I spent 8 to 14 hours a day for 41 out of 42 days paddling, dragging and carrying my boat.
Yes, I completed that trip, but it also took months to recover and feel normal again.
Complete utter exhaustion is a place you want to visit occasionally. My friend and extreme endurance athlete Mike McCastle once told me, ‘train frequently, test rarely.”
Regular rest and recuperation is part of that frequent training.
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Most people can (and should) push themselves a lot harder than they do. However the ‘No Days Off’ philosophy taken to its extreme merely results in illness, injury and stalled progress. Learning when to push yourself as hard as you can vs when to take a rest day is a delicate balancing act. And it’s something you need to get wrong a number of times before you start getting it right…
How Hard Can You Push Yourself?
Now it’s true that, in general, people don’t push themselves nearly enough.
The human body has an amazing capacity to repair, recover and adapt to the stresses you put on it. And if you’re smart about it then you can actually increase this capacity over time.
But just as you need exercise and exertion to maximise your gains you also need rest and recuperation. Otherwise you end up severely overtrained which then, inevitably, leads to illness and injury.
Learning to walk this tightrope between doing too much and doing too little takes time, and usually you’ll get it wrong a bunch of times before you start getting it right.
Should You Train When You’re Sick?
It’s said that lessons repeat themselves until learned. If this is true then there is one particular lesson that has been really hard for me to learn, and I have had to repeat it time after time after time.
That lesson is: if you feel sick, don’t train.
My pattern used to go like this: say I woke up and felt under the weather, perhaps with my nose congested and my energy low. I would then decide to go train anyhow, telling myself “I’ll just go light“. Then I would do jiu-jitsu (or go for a run, or lift weights) and usually go a little harder than I had planned on.
After training I’d feel proud of myself: “I didn’t let those sniffles stop me!” I’d go to bed, and wake up the next morning sick as a dog.
When I was young and impressionable an ‘expert’ told me that if the sickness was above the neck (i.e. in the throat, nose or sinuses) then it was OK to train. Supposedly you were only supposed to stop training if the sickness was below the neck, in the chest or stomach. Well many years later (and after many colds and flus) I realize that the best way to bring an illness from above the neck to below the neck is to go and work out.
I’m better now – at least 75% of the time when I’m feeling under the weather I back off and do nothing. As a result I’m not sick as often and also lose a lot less training time. I end up feeling like a slug, but at least I’m a smart slug.
Better to take a day off and go hard the next day, than to tough it out and lose a whole week of training.
Don’t Screw Up Your Training Partner’s Training
Another thing to consider is your training partner’s health and welfare.
One person I corresponded with summed it up by saying:
“A sickness or an injury that prevents us from doing something we enjoy and makes us feel great can be extremely frustrating particularly as we get older and a break from training can really make it a lot harder to get back up to full fitness.
Another very important consideration is that of the health of others in the dojo. Turning up to train and having your partner sniffle,cough or worse still tell you “my throat is on fire” while grappling is unpleasant and a recipe for spreading the illness to other training partners. Yeah I know it’s not an old school way of thinking but training time for me is precious (as the family has to come first) so having someone in the dojo keep me out of action by bringing along a cold or flu is inconsiderate.
Don’t get me wrong, after a sickness or injury I am champing at the bit to get back at it but like you, this old dog has found that taking just a little extra time to rest and heal generally means the illness does not prolong and that others are not put at risk”
This phenomenon seems worst around competition time: everyone is training hard and a little worn down, and nobody wants to take a break from training.
I can’t count the number of times I have seen a sick person ‘helping’ a serious competitor by training with them right before the competition. I have seen this happen to high-level Brazilian jiu-jitsu, submission grappling, and high-level mixed martial arts competitors, so no one is immune.
This is GRAPPLING folks, and your flu germ will quickly become your partner’s flu germs.