The Importance of Rest Periods In Training Sets

“Just how important is the rest interval in a typical workout, and how do I know when I’m giving my athlete’s enough?” 

What a loaded question! But it’s one we hear all the time. Problem is even the most elite coaches can’t agree on how much rest to give their athletes between and during sets. And neither can the leading sports physiologists. It’s a grey area at best, and a hot issue for locker room debate among coaches with contradictory recommendations coming from all sides. But we think we have some rock solid advice you can start using at your very next practice.

The key to understanding this dilemma lies in having a formalized system of training that can connect different types of exercises with various physiological functions (think Super Sport Systems). But you don’t have to be an elite sports scientist to understand what we are going to explain, or an Einstein to figure out how to apply this in daily practice. Because we have tools that can do all that for you in an instant, and insure that the training sets you select will be precisely calibrated for clearly defined targets and optimized for maximum adaptation. So “To rest or not to rest… that is the question.”

To begin with… it is common knowledge that exercise can be divided into four general categories, each of which requires work in a particular zone for maximum effectiveness.

  • Distance (continuous effort) – typically effective to train in Zones Ib and Ia (Aerobic Zones)
  • Interval (Zones II and III – Aerobic Power and Capacity at paces above Anaerobic Threshold)
  • Repetitive (IV and V – Anaerobic power and capacity)
  • Maximum Effort – zone depends on effort distance or duration but in most cases it is either in zone IV (50, 100, 200) or V (25, 50)

What is not generally understood, however, is that rest must be calculated differently for each of these, since it performs a slightly different function in each kind of set.

First of all you must understand that the rest period you allow within a set regulates overall set intensity. But rest itself can also be treated as a part of the overall set, or as an outside parameter, depending on the type of exercise your athletes are performing.

distance exercises the only element that really matters is how long an athlete can keep up “critical” speed.  So any rest will diminish the training value of a set. However, short rest intervals will not likely be detrimental.  Since the overall distance of a set at a particular pace governs its value, the rest period in this case is not really a determining factor.

TIP: Typically, we suggest a rest interval of no more than 60 seconds in this scenario, but in reality it can also be just zero. </font color=red>

NOTE: The main complaint athletes have about training with continuous sets is their monotony.  To overcome this we suggest breaking longer distances into shorter ones with an increased number of repetitions. Doing this will not change the nature of a distance set. However, it may reduce its training effect.

When performing interval exercises, rest should be calculated as a part of the whole set.  Remember in 3S it is the duration of effort that helps define an energy zone.  But once you increase intensity to a certain point, the training effect accumulates during the rest between repetitions, making it a part of the set.  So the total duration of a set in zone III for example is determined by the length of time of each effort PLUS the rest between efforts. This makes the rest period a very important variable that can influence the overall intensity and value of an interval set.

TIP: From a physiological point of view the most effective sets in Zones II and III occur when we keep rest intervals between 15 and 30 seconds, with 15 to 20 second rest periods considered optimal.  In this modality athletes receive the best training effect FOR TRAINING A PARTICULAR FUNCTION, which is consistent with the goals of Zone III or interval training.</font color=red>

Repetitive exercises are in essence a variation of interval exercises. Here the intensity (pace) of each set is determined by a percentage of maximum speed for a particular distance.  Once again we see how rest changes its role and value.  You will serve your athletes best in this instance by allowing them to recover completely before starting their next repetition. In general anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes of recovery time will be sufficient. But this of course depends on the intensity and goal of the set.  Recovery between repetitions can be passive (complete rest) or active (low intensity effort, or maybe even a drill).

In 3S we view training sets as tools to reach and influence different energy producing systems. Although numerous variations of this are possible when applying different types of sets, we must always consider the…

  • Capacity of the process
  • Power of the process
  • Efficiency of the process

What this means is when working in a particular zone, sets can be modified to address a specific function.  And the amount of rest you allow can be used to help achieve those effects.

In the final analysis, as useful as these principles are, it is important to understand that they are not carved in stone. 3S is more of a guide for coaches than a rigid set of rules. Although we try to give you the best possible advice, only you know exactly what your athletes need. That is something coaches who are most successful with our system understand… that the individual needs of your athletes far outweigh the sanctity of our system. Our tools will help you determine their true training needs, and will also provide you with the means to calculate the sets they will need to perform at their absolute best. And that will make all the difference in the world to them and to you.

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