When someone gets started with a new fitness routine there are a lot of questions that come up.
Everything from ‘What should I eat before training and after?’, ‘Should I do weights before cardio or vice versa?’, ‘Should I do more or less reps/sets?’, ‘How long should my workouts be?’ and ‘How often should I train?’
Do any of these sound familiar?
I’ll bet that not only did they sound familiar when you were starting out with your fitness journey, some of these may still be questions going through your head.
Let’s take a look at one question for now: ‘How often should I train?’.
I guess before we get to answering that question, we need to know: why is somebody asking? If we know a little more about the person asking, and the context in which they are asking, it will help us to answer the original question.
For example, consider if we had two different people asking the question of how often they should train.
Number 1: The first person is a med-school student with a young family. This person is in class, the library or the lab every waking moment. The couple of free hours per day they can find are spent bathing, cooking meals and tending to their children.
When this person asks how often they should train it is from a position of ‘I know I need to do this but I don’t have 30 free minutes per day’.
I can hear the frustration and anxiety in their voice when they tell me their reality. For this person I might recommend 5-10 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing and some light stretching to begin or end the day. Anymore on their plate and it just won’t get done. And it will leave them more frustrated and sad.
Number 2: The second person who has come to me asking this question, has a Facebook profile that gets checked daily, could name their top 3 shows on Netflix and has been to most of the new restaurants and lounges that have opened since the summer. That answer might be different.
So how do you find the answer?
The first thing to consider is what it the person’s goal? Are they looking to feel, look, or play better?
To feel better. This often involves rehabilitation from some type of injury. There may be specific guidelines from an orthopedic surgeon or physiotherapist as to the protocol for training. These guidelines will tell the individual how often training will be appropriate for them and could range from one to four days per week.
To look better. Here, we need to consider where they’re currently at and where they want to get to. For someone that’s not in very good physical condition we might start with two days and look to increase this to three as soon as possible. For someone who is already in good physical condition we will start with three or four days and look to work up to five.
To play better. Lastly, for athletes, this depends a little bit on the stage of development of the athlete as well as whether they are in-season or off-season. In-season and younger athletes will train less frequently whereas higher level athletes in their off-season will train more frequently. The range for all of these is typically one to four days per week with unique circumstances when it may involve five days.
For all types of goals there are some considerations as to how soon another workout may be done. I remember reading how the Bulgarian weightlifters would train multiple times per day and almost every day of the week. While this is not what we’re recommending, I mention it just to demonstrate what the upper end of the range can look like.
For the rest of us we can determine how often to work out based on the following two factors:
Intensity – When you go all out you’ll need more days rest between training than if the intensity is very low. My elderly aunt may go for a walk after dinner every evening so in a sense you could say she does her workout daily. It’s not very intense and is something she is familiar with therefore doing it daily is probably alright.
Consider a different situation where a track sprinter is going to do some 50 m sprints at maximal intensity. The athleteshould not do anything else at maximal intensity for a few days in order to recover optimally from this training session.
Frequency – How soon you can perform another training session depends a little bit on how intense the session was, the fitness level, the training age and the health of the individual. Also, there must be some consideration to the duration and type of the workout, familiarity of the work to be done, sleep, nutrition, hydration and activities of daily living.
Let’s take a brief look at each of these.
Fitness – A fitter individual will recover more quickly than an unfit individual.
Training age – Someone with more training experience will recover more quickly than someone that is new to training.
Health – When the immune system is compromised or there is some type of musculo-skeletal condition, recovery may be impaired.
Duration – Typically we will recover more quickly from a shorter workout compared to a longer one, when intensities are equal.
Type – Usually we will recover more quickly from a cardiovascular workout compared to a nervous system intensive workout. If you imagine going for a run, you are usually feeling fine an hour or two after training compared to a heavy session of Olympic lifting where you may still feel the effects days later.
Familiarity – You know what it’s like when your coach introduces you to a new exercise? Sometimes there is soreness or stiffness the next day. You didn’t necessarily lift more or go longer but your nervous had to adapt to new demands and thus requires longer recovery.
Sleep – One of the big problems with men and women in their 20’s and 30’s is that they sometimes come back to the gym as a former athlete wanting to reproduce their workouts from their younger years. And while they still may be able to physically handle these workouts, there are more demands in their lives such as work, spouse and kids. Now they don’t get the same quantity or quality of sleep that they did when living the single life, and this may impair their recovery for subsequent workouts.
Nutrition & Hydration – Imagine twins performing the exact same workout. At the completion of the workout one twin has a recovery shake and the other has nothing. The twin that has the shake also continues sipping on a water bottle before preparing a nutritious meal within an hour of training. The other twin skips the shake, forgets his water bottle and doesn’t eat until 3-4 hours later. The twin that skips and delays post workout nutrition will recover more slowly and less completely than the other twin.
Activities of Daily Living – What we do before and after our workouts will impact our recovery. Again let’s go with the scenario of twins from above. After a high volume leg day with 4 sets of 12 reps of squats one twin jumps in a truck to drive to Vancouver and the other twin goes to work walking around town delivering mail. The twin that sits and doesn’t move will recover more slowly and less completely than the one that does some light activity, such as walking.
These are just a few of the factors that will impact how soon an individual may be able to train again. There are a number of things we can do to enhance recovery that we haven’t discussed here but will definitely play a role in frequency of training. That wasn’t the purpose of this post.
For frequent training, remember to build up to what your body currently will handle, vary your workouts from one to the next, eat healthy and drink adequate water. Simply doing these things will help you train as frequently as you’d like.