Why Rest Days Are Just as Important as Workouts
Stepping back from going hard can help you make major gains, but a rest day may not mean exactly what you think it does.
As a fan of working out, you know a few things, like the exact name of your favorite pair of workout tights or the shorts that fit you perfectly. And whether you’re a let’s-lift-weights sort of human or a run-til-my-legs-fall-off type of exerciser, you should know that taking a break once in a while from your daily fitness routine is important to avoid injury and help recovery. On rest days, your body has the opportunity to repair itself in order to come back stronger and more ready for future effort.
“Rest is an often-overlooked portion of a fitness regimen, but without it, we are more susceptible to overtraining, depleted immune system responses and injury,” says Cassandra Hill, a physical therapist and wellness coach at Fox Rehabilitation in Baltimore, MD. During exercise, says Hill, your body uses glycogen for energy to enhance your performance. Rest days allow the body to replenish depleted glycogen stores, while also repairing any muscle damage so that you can lift harder, run faster, and bike farther during your next active training day.
“Neglecting rest could lead to elevated resting heart rate, consistent muscle soreness, and decreased ability to focus,” adds Hill. “It can cause chronic fatigue, restlessness, irritability and burnout—the list is almost endless. Plus, a lack of rest could open you up to illness and of course, land you on the injured list.”
But despite what you might be tempted to believe, a rest day doesn’t necessarily mean wearing your coziest sweatpants while settling into your favorite groove on the couch for 12 straight TV binge hours. Rather, think of your rest day as a low-key, cross-training experience, where you adopt certain practices and routines that can make you a more well-rounded athlete and stave off potential injury. Discover what the experts have to say about the right way to approach your rest day.
Do Whatever You Usually Skip
The activities that you do on your day “off” will depend on what you usually focus on during “on” days. If your sport is running, your rest day should have some strength training or mobility work, advises Michael Autore, a personal trainer at MOTIV New York. “You want this day to complement the training you’re doing more regularly,” he says. So if lifting is your preferred activity, your rest day could include 30 minutes of walking or going for a swim. (And don’t forget: If you’re going for a walk around the neighborhood, a great pair of sneakers can make all the difference.)
For most people, a rest day won’t be completely off, says Autore. This is because being stagnant is good for no one. “You want to encourage circulation in the body through low-intensity movement like walking, light cycling or yoga, which helps your body repair itself from the activity the day before.”
Depending on your fitness level and sport, a rest day could even be doing your chosen activity at a much lesser intensity, says Hill. “It’s important to note, however, that this activity should be done at submaximal levels—at the most about a five on the zero to 10 Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale,” she adds.
Incorporate Mobility Work
If you’re the kind of person who skips out on a classic warm-up and cooldown session, it’s important to take a little time to give back to your muscles so that they can stay limber and pliant when you move. Mobility exercises are, as they sound, designed to help with range of motion in your joints and muscles. This work can often be aided by tools like a foam roller in addition to old-school stretching moves. Yoga classes may also improve mobility while bringing that element of calm your rest day needs. Adding mobility exercises into your routine, in addition to a dynamic warm-up, can improve your strength, power and agility, according to a study published in the Journal of Athletic Training.
Make Time for Sleep
Sleep is a rest day recovery tactic that is often overlooked. “People need to make it a priority,” says Autore. The amount of sleep you need varies from person to person, but most adults need somewhere between seven and nine hours nightly, and if you’re an athlete, you probably land closer to the nine hours side of things than a couch potato who may need considerably less.
If nine hours seems totally out of the realm of possibility, the semi-good news is that sleep quality counts almost as much as sleep quantity when it comes to replenishing your body’s energy needs. Creating a sleep-conducive space (dark room, cool temps, no noise) will give you a head start on sleeping solidly through the night.
Another top tip: Try the 10-3-2-1-0 method. Developed by self-improvement expert Craig Ballantyne, this sleep strategy involves cutting out caffeine, food, alcohol, work and screen time in the hours leading up to turning in for the night.
Day after day, you get after it in the gym or on the road. So on your rest day, it’s good to take a step back and reflect on the things that you’re thankful for in your life—fitness or otherwise. In fact, taking the time to express gratitude can actually help your body heal faster from injury, according to research. (Gratitude can also improve your sports performance, according to other studies.) To try it, start by writing down one thing that you’re grateful for on the morning of your rest day, then read what you wrote and reflect on it that night before bed. Looking back at your notes from time to time will remind you of all the little ways to appreciate your body and the world around you.
It’s tempting to see your rest day as a “cheat” day with your diet. But fueling for performance and incorporating whole foods into your routine is super important, whether you’re working out or resting up. However, there should be a few differences on your rest day compared to a heavy-training day, says Autore. “Typically, if you’re doing a morning workout you may eat more carbohydrates the night before,” he says. “But on your rest day when you're not as active, you might want fewer carbs on the last evening of your workout cycle.” Also, consider a few less carbs during the rest day itself, since you won’t be burning them off, but keep your lean protein intake high, to help with muscle repair.
Don’t obsess over what you eat too much, though: Calorie intake and nutritional mix is best thought of as an average over the course of a week, so if you eat a little more than you intended on your rest day, worry not: You’ll be burning right through it tomorrow.