It’s totally understandable to think that all the time you spend exercising is where you’ll make gains. But exercise is a stressor, in that it causes micro-damage to your muscles. To get stronger, your body has to adapt to that stress—and it does that by repairing that micro-damage and rebuilding your muscles after your workout.
In other words, rest days are crucial to making progress in your training. But they don’t have to mean doing nothing at all. “A rest day is one where you’re not participating in any rigorous physical activity or formal workouts,” says Stephanie Thomas, a certified personal trainer based in Annapolis, Maryland. “Instead, you’re focused on resting or restoring your muscles.”
Now, there are two types of recovery you can partake in on rest days: passive and active. Passive recovery basically entails avoiding physical activity. Active recovery means doing easy activity (like cycling, swimming, yoga, etc.) at 30 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate, according to a 2019 review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. This method of recovery helps loosen up stiff muscles and flush metabolic waste build-up from more intense exercise, explains Steven Mack, a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Columbia, Missouri. And according to research from Western State Colorado University, active recovery is superior to passive recovery when it comes to optimizing training benefits.
While taking a day off from harder training may feel like a missed opportunity, adequate rest is a smart and strategic way to maximize your performance. Below, all the details on this aspect of your regimen, from the benefits to the best practices.
Benefits of Rest Days
The main point of a rest day is pretty straightforward and simple: it’s to give your body time to recover. “Rest days are an important part of managing fatigue,” says Mack. “It’s hard to continually push yourself harder if you’re always feeling and getting worn down.” And because exercise inherently causes minor muscular damage, “rest days help prevent further injury by allowing your body’s tissues enough time to heal themselves before being subjected to tougher workouts,” Mack explains.
Rest days are also important for preventing overtraining, which can increase your body fat, raise your risk of dehydration, lower your libido, and worsen your mood, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. Overtraining can even cause mental fatigue, according to a study published in Current Biology, sapping your exercise motivation, sucking the joy out of exercise, and undermining your attempts to reach your fitness goal.
How to Incorporate Rest Days Into Your Regimen
Most experts recommend taking one to two rest days per week, but it’s up to you to listen to your body and determine how much recovery time you need.
“Timing your rest days wisely will help you get the most out of them,” Thomas says. “For example, if you have a tough training session on Tuesday, use Wednesday as a recovery day. If you know you will have a busy weekend, schedule your rest days for then so you have one less thing to worry about.” But don’t feel guilty if you need to take an impromptu rest day and reschedule your workout for another day that week, she advises. (You’ll still have plenty of time to hit your Paceline Streak and earn rewards in the app!)
In general, muscles need anywhere from 24 to 72 hours to fully recover from a workout, according to Mack. “The more intense your workout, the more time it will likely take you to recover,” he adds. So, if you do a heavy leg training session on Monday morning, you shouldn’t do an intense lower body workout again until at least Wednesday.
Signs You Need a Rest Day
Sore muscles are a pretty obvious indicator that you’ve been pushing yourself hard in the gym. (And if you’re experiencing more soreness or soreness that lingers for longer than normal, that’s a cry for help from your body!) But muscle soreness isn’t the only warning sign.
For instance, if your standard workout routine feels tougher than usual, that means your body hasn’t recovered from past efforts—basically, you’re starting at a deficit and you have to work harder to reach levels you should be accustomed to. And according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, signs of overtraining include a rise in resting heart rate, elevated blood pressure, digestive problems, and mood disturbances, among many others.
When to Seek Guidance From a Pro
If you’re noticing a plateau or decline in your fitness progress, that “easy” workouts feel harder than normal, or that you’ve lost your motivation to exercise, it may be worth talking to a personal trainer, physical therapist, or sports medicine expert—in addition to taking some additional recovery time.
“A professional can help you create a workout schedule that works for your specific goals and lifestyle,” says Thomas. “They will strategically place your rest days into your schedule so you get the most out of your workouts. If you are still not feeling refreshed, they may consider changing the exercises in the workouts, the length of the workouts, and the amount of weight you are using during your workouts.” And remember: Stress is stress, “whether that be from your lifting or that quarterly project your boss suddenly needs,” says Mack. “Those things add up and have an impact on how you put your plan together.” Understanding how all kinds of stress affect your body can help you use rest and recovery to stay on your A-game.