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by Jennifer Parks

September 1, 2003

All are an integral part of getting fit

When people choose to get “fit,” many people think that it means to workout as often as possible, pushing as hard as possible. What happens is that people often become too tired, too exhausted, and then may drop out of a fitness program. Or, they really push themselves, and then they get sick, and are forced to drop out, at least for a while. In this country, we value a great work ethic, whether it’s at work or in the work of getting fit. The problem is that we become less efficient in our workouts and often compromise our immunity to illness, if we do not give our bodies a chance to rest and recover. Several years ago, one of my former swimmers who became a great triathlete, Wendy Ingraham, told me that sometimes when she thought she should “workout,” (meaning run, bike or swim hard) she would go and “work out” in her garden, instead! A former professor of mine, in the Holistic Health graduate program at Western Michigan University, often said that sleep and rest were “spiritual practices.” I think it is important to listen to your body; amazingly, it will tell you when you need more rest, or recovery, relaxation, or even just extra sleep.

Checking your heart rate during practice is a simple way of seeing whether you are overly fatigued. Compare your heart rates during and after workouts for a period of time, at least a week. Keep a record. If your heart rate does not return to what is normal for you (don’t compare yourself to other people), after a workout, stays relatively elevated, you may be overly exhausted, or possibly on the verge of becoming ill. It may be time to take a little more rest: put more recovery time in your intervals, have a relaxation day (swim less and/or easy, or not at all), and try to get more sleep.

We are all have different physiological, mental and emotional make-ups, yet it is important that we take the rest we, as individuals, need. We may have a stressful job that takes a lot of energy, physically and/or mentally/emotionally, which can fatigue us. Being fit can help us handle stress better, particularly the muscular tension. But we definitely need to assess our rest and sleep. Working out does put some physiological stress on our bodies and it is important to allow ourselves to rest and recover. In truth, we can actually become more fit and able to handle the stress of workouts, competition (if you choose to compete), and even work and family, if we get enough rest! Really!

Keep a rest/sleep diary for a week, a normal week. See how much sleep/rest you need to feel energetic in fitness workouts and in daily life (work, family and friends). Try “power” naps of short duration, if you struggle to get enough sleep at night. As you grow older, for various reasons, your sleep may be broken up more, so naps may help, though long ones can interfere with sleep at night. Try not to overly rely on caffeine for an energy boost. The largest number of swimmers workout in the morning so going to bed earlier may be a better choice. Do you really need to see that last newscast? If you have difficulty going to sleep, try deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and even visualizing a relaxing place, a beach with waves breaking or a campfire by a river. Sometimes working out later in the evening may interfere with sleep because you’re too “pumped up,” so those techniques may help then at bedtime.

And even during practice, if you’re really struggling, take a break, an extra ten seconds, another minute’s rest between sets. You are an adult and know yourself and your energy/fatigue level better than anyone. A commitment to exercise is great, but when it becomes an addiction and your body begins to break down, it is not good. If you want to become stronger, faster, and really fit, reasonable rest between sets, recovery time between intervals, relaxation swims, and good sleep can help you toward your goals. You’ll feel better, too, and often swim much more efficiently and faster when you do workout!

There’s an acronym, “FIT,” which stands for frequency, intensity and time/duration…let’s add an “R” for rest, recovery and relaxation so that it, and we, become “FIT-R”!

Jennifer Parks is a member of the USMS Fitness Committee. Parks teaches health, wellness, fitness, aquatics, and stress management courses at Ferris State University in Michigan. She was the swim coach at Michigan State in the 70s and 80s, and has been swimming Masters for almost 30 years.


  • Technique and Training