You know the sense of determination you get when you want to accomplish a fitness goal? That eye-on-the-prize, can’t-take-a-day-off motivation? While it can feel great to be so focused, giving your body time to recover with active rest days can actually be more beneficial than going hard seven days a week, according to the experts. “We can’t skip the recovery aspect of training and expect the body to respond and grow lean muscle tissue,” says Ashley Borden, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and athletic trainer in Los Angeles.
That said, not all rest is created equal. Passive rest—think lounging around during a Netflix binge—might seem appealing, but it’s not the most productive for your fitness routine. “While you may be sore from an intense, workout-packed week, sometimes doing absolutely nothing can actually stiffen you up more,” says Borden.
What is active rest?
Active rest—or a low-intensity activity such as walking or stretching—allows you to keep up your fitness momentum and promote better recovery for your muscles. “Active rest is participating in activity with a reduced load compared to what’s considered [your] normal workout,” says Scott Oliaro, head athletic trainer and associate director of sports medicine at the University of North Carolina. “This can include changing the activity (biking or swimming instead of running), reducing the mileage of a run, or changing the duration of [the] activity.”
What active rest looks like
The intensity of the active rest zone varies from person to person—what constitutes a low-intensity jog for a marathon runner would look very different to someone who has never run more than a mile.
As a general rule of thumb, active rest approaches but doesn’t cross your body’s lactate threshold, says Dr. Bruce Gladden, director of the Muscle Physiology Lab at Auburn University in Georgia. In layman’s terms, the lactate threshold is about the point of exertion where you’d start to have difficulty talking. “The intensity for active recovery would be at that level or lower,” he says.
So how can you incorporate active rest into your week? It’s easier than you think.
Power walking—your heart rate is elevated, but you can still easily hold a conversation.
Yoga—look for classes at your on-campus gym or a local studio, or for flows on YouTube that emphasize lots of stretching.
Swimming—switch up your cardio routine with a few laps on your active rest days to reduce the impact on your joints and help your body recover.
Biking—keep it mellow. Save the sprints and hills for a more intense workout.
Elliptical—a low-impact elliptical session is another great cardio alternative.
Rebounding—jumping on a trampoline (you can find small ones to fit in your bedroom/small spaces) is a great moderate-intensity, low-impact workout. Research by the American Council on Exercise in 2016 found that while participants still got a great workout, jumping on a trampoline felt easier than running or biking (if you ask us, it’s also way more fun).
Hiking—if you’re a regular weightlifter, give your muscles a break and add in a nice view with a leisurely hike. Just remember Dr. Gladden’s rule of thumb—the effort should be easy enough that you can still comfortably talk. No hills or trails nearby? A stroll around campus works too.
The case for adding active rest
So why engage in active rest rather than plowing through a training schedule or using your rest day as an excuse to fall down the rabbit hole of weird cat videos? Active rest actually has big body and brain benefits. Here’s what it does:
Active rest is a key factor in preventing overtraining and injury—especially overuse injuries like stress reactions or tendinitis, says Oliaro. When you don’t build active rest into your training schedule, you’re breaking down muscle tissue faster than it can repair itself. “The increase in tissue stress without repair leads to increased stress and tissue breakdown. This can lead to stress fractures, tendinopathy [a chronic tendon condition that fails to heal], or other soft tissue injury that will limit or shut down training,” he says. “Active rest allows soft tissue to recover better, changes the stress loads on the body, and gives time for muscles and tendons to adapt properly.”
“[Active rest] helps work out the sore feeling and keeps your muscles warm instead of not being used.”
—Kennedy H., first-year undergraduate, University of Kansas
Following the tissue damage caused by an intense workout, you want to increase the blood flow to your muscles to help them mend. “Doing a lower-intensity workout elevates blood flow without adding stress to the muscle,” says Dr. Gladden. “While you don’t increase the oxidative stress in your muscles, you’re increasing blood flow to the muscles that have been taxed, delivering more fuel and amino acids to the muscles [which helps them build], and removing factors that might be causing soreness or pain.” This kind of activity also helps the flow of lymphatic fluid, which can help eliminate inflammation.
When done properly, high-intensity exercise is OK and healthy—but it does put stress on your body and raises the level of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your blood. Low-intensity exercise, on the other hand, doesn’t, according a 2008 study published in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation. When the researchers tested the impacts of various activity levels in moderately active participants, they found that active rest—defined as 40 percent of your maximum workout effort—actually lowered cortisol levels.
“Mentally, active rest helps keep training fresh and new,” says Oliaro. “Active rest allows you to recover and change focus depending on the goals of the workout.” Think about it this way: Even if you love running, running the same sprints on the same route for every workout can get tedious. That’s a recipe for burnout. Incorporating active rest into your schedule is the perfect excuse to switch things up—after taking a day off to swim a few easy laps, you’ll be itching to get back to your running route.
Active rest also helps you listen to your body and engage in some self-care, which can be just as important as pushing yourself to reach a new workout goal. “Having an awareness of your energy level is key to progress,” says Borden. If you usually have a specific time goal or mile split in mind, try going with your body’s flow on an active rest day instead—slowing down or stopping to walk when your legs start getting tired.
It may seem counterintuitive, but scheduling regular bouts of active rest into your workout routine can actually help you train more intensely. “The key about taking a rest, and especially if it can be moderately active, is that you feel better the next day,” says Dr. Edward Coyle, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin. “If you feel better in your training, that allows you to train more intensely.”
Trying to push through daily high-intensity workouts puts you into what’s called an “overreaching period.” “You may actually find that you’re not improving over that period of time,” says Dr. Gladden. In addition, overreaching for a week or more can cause lasting immune system dysfunction (e.g., you could be more susceptible to that nasty cold going around campus), according to a 2007 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology. When you consistently overtrain like this, “you’re more susceptible to infections, you might have difficulty sleeping, and you’ll have greater stress,” explains Dr. Gladden, all of which can hamper your progress.
“One feels mentally more refreshed and physically more capable after the rest. I reach goals that I set for myself faster and more efficiently during practice time.”
—Leonard F., fourth-year undergraduate, New England Conservatory of Music, Massachusetts
How to work active rest into your workouts
So now that you know active rest can be a lot of things—biking, yoga, swimming, walking—the next question is how often should you do it? That depends on how intense your regular workout schedule is, experts say. “The harder you’re exercising, the more you need active rest,” says Dr. Coyle. “One rule that most athletes follow for training is a hard day followed by an easy day. If you try to put two or three hard days in a row, that can be counterproductive.”
How do you know it’s time for an active rest day? Ask yourself:
Am I sore every day? “That’s probably not a good thing,” says Dr. Gladden. A little soreness is expected, especially if you’re trying a new workout, but anything lasting more than 48 hours is your body’s way of saying it needs a break. “Pain is a great indicator that your body may not be ready to participate in a particular exercise,” says Dr. Oliaro.
Is my workout performance going down? In other words, do you feel like you can’t keep up with your usual workouts or your go-to moves are getting harder? “That’s a clear sign you need to build in some active rest,” Dr. Gladden says.
How am I truly feeling? If your honest answer to the question “How do I feel today?” is “tired” or “run down,” it might be time to swap in active recovery. “If on a scale from 1–10 you feel like a five or less, roll out and refuel,” says Borden.
If you’re training at a more intense level, consider building in active rest every two or three days, says Dr. Oliaro. For example, you might do an intense cardio cycling session on Monday, hit the weight room hard on Tuesday, and then stick to some slow yoga on Wednesday.
“I gradually increase my weight limit to test my strength when I’m doing strength training for two to three days and allow myself active rest on day three by concentrating on lighter exercise, like yoga and stretching.”
—Eliana, R., first-year graduate student, Metropolitan University of Denver, Colorado
Some research indicates that active rest is best when it involves the same muscles you used during a more intense workout. A 2016 study published in PLOS One looked at canoeists and football players who engaged in 20 minutes of post-exercise active recovery using the same muscles they used in their regular workouts. They found that doing so was more effective for preventing muscle fatigue than participating in a recovery activity using different muscles. For example, going for a walk or leisurely jog after leg day would be an effective way to prevent sore legs.
Foam rolling is also a great way to engage in active rest while preventing sore muscles, says Borden. Follow an intense workout with a body-loving foam rolling session (you can even do this immediately after hitting the gym or finishing a run). For 10 minutes, spend a full minute rolling out each of the following body parts: quads, hamstrings, upper back, triceps, calves, inner thighs, outer thighs, and glutes. “Spend as much time as you feel you need on extra-sore or tight body parts with your foam roller,” Borden says.
Here’s an example of what a week of moderate training with active rest might look like (tailor your own schedule to fit your needs and fitness level)
|Monday||Workout||High-intensity cardio, such as cycling or a long run|
|Tuesday||Active rest||Yoga to stretch out any tightness in legs|
|Wednesday||Workout||Strength-training session, like barre or HIIT to target the upper body|
|Thursday||Workout||Give arms a break with a cycling session|
|Friday||Active rest||Foam roll to show extra love to muscles after a long week|
|Sunday||Rest—you don’t have to be on the move every single day. If you’re feeling tired even when you work in regular active rest, listen to your body and take a full day or two off.|
While your workout and rest activities of choice will change based on the types of exercise you’re into and how intensely you’re training, there’s one thing to always keep in mind, says Borden: “There’s no shame in the rest game.” Working active rest into your workout routine will help you grow stronger and stay active week after week.
Ashley Borden, certified strength and conditioning specialist and athletic trainer.
Edward Coyle, PhD, professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin.
Bruce Gladden, PhD, director of the Muscle Physiology Lab at Auburn University in Georgia.
Scott Oliaro, head athletic trainer and associate director of sports medicine at the University of North Carolina.
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