I’ve recognized it in myself and I’ve seen it again and again in people who develop a new “fitness bug.” Once you see the physical and mental results of your workouts, you want more and want it quicker, leading you to a “no days off” mentality. I’m here to tell you that “no days off” is a recipe for disaster. If you don’t take a rest day you will surely burn out quickly, experience overuse injuries, and/or cause hormonal imbalances stemming from an overload of stress on the body.
If you have a training regimen and it’s relatively intense, you need days off. Even the world’s top performing athletes take rest days each week and recognize that their bodies cannot output the same efforts every single day. More is not always better.
The Importance of Rest Days
A rest day in the fitness or athletics world is simply taking a day off from training to allow your mind and body to recover. On these days you should prioritize self-care, sleep, and quality nutrition and hydration so that you can bounce back the next day feeling fresh and motivated. This allows your body to recover and adapt to your training and is especially important if your training load is regular and intense.
When you exercise you cause inflammation and micro-tears in your muscles that only recover with adequate rest. It’s also worth noting that rest days are as much for the body as they are for the mind. Pushing through regular intense workouts is also mentally stressful and taking a rest day does wonders for your motivation to continue with your training and all of the various other demands of life.
When To Take a Rest Day
The number of rest days you take each week will depend on many factors including your training style and intensity, your fitness level, the demands on your mind and body outside of fitness (i.e., a physical or stressful job), and, for women, where you are at in your menstrual cycle.
The body responds to cardio and strength training differently so it’s important to keep this in mind when planning your rest days. I typically build up my training to a rest day, with my most intense workout of the week before a rest day and my lightest training day immediately after. In other words, I also don’t go my absolute hardest or longest every single day of the week.
It’s important to note that no matter how much you plan for a rest day, sometimes there will be days that you need to throw the plan out the window because you wake up unexpectedly exhausted and sore on a day you’re supposed to train. Listen to your body. Rest days are certainly not “one size fits all.” Your body wants to move and thrive, but it can only do it when you work with it, not against it. Start with a prescriptive approach with your rest days with the notion that you’ll have to adjust as needed. With rest days, it’s better to be flexible.
You know you’re body better than anyone else and need to trust your intuition on whether it’s best for you to take a rest day and fully recover for your next block of training or to push through. The longer you are training like an athlete, the better your instincts will become with this.
Active Recovery vs. Totally Off
In the world of athletics, you’ll hear people talk about “active recovery” in relation to rest days. Active recovery means you do a very low-intensity exercise on your rest day. This could look like going for a walk, a very casual swim, taking a light yoga class, or rolling out your muscles with a foam roller for half an hour.
Active recovery is thought to be beneficial and help you recover faster, especially if you’re experiencing soreness because it “keeps your blood moving.” In other words, it increases your blood flow thereby offering benefits like reducing lactic acid buildup in the muscles and reducing soreness, and keeping the muscles flexible.
However, I actually rarely do an “active recovery” day, and here’s why: My rest days are as much a mental break as they are a physical one. And because I’m competitive, once I start doing a foam rolling session I suddenly start getting ideas for how I could turn it into a workout. Everyone is different. For me, my rest days are “totally off” meaning I give myself full permission to sit on the couch all day if I want to. It’s taken some time, but I have learned that one of my greatest assets is knowing my needs–– mentally, physically, and emotionally.
It’s important to note that I’m not actually training for races at this point in my life. Active recovery days, at least in my mind, are more suited for professional athletes whose lives revolve around their sport and are looking for any small way to get a competitive advantage. So active recovery or not, it’s up to you and your lifestyle! I “keep the blood moving” in sore muscles by taking a super hot Epson salt bath on my days off instead… something I highly recommend and that I will do a whole blog article about soon!
We all come to fitness from different walks of life with different routines and goals. If you take anything from this blog let it be that if you are doing intense exercise, you absolutely need days off! When you take them and what exactly they look like depends on various factors, but the bottom line is that we incorporate fitness into our lives to ultimately feel GOOD. If you are always exhausted and sore, that is a bad sign. If you needed permission to take a rest day, here it is!