Active Recovery Vs. Rest Day - What's the Difference?
February 25th, 2020
Rest and recovery days are an important part of your training program but are often the most overlooked days by many active people. While most of us would love to get six or seven days of exercise in in a week, sometimes our body sends us signs that it’s time for a day off. We’ve all been there before. Our morning alarm goes off and our body is just too beat to train. Achy muscles and stiff joints make just getting out of bed or getting through the workday feel hard, and the thought of going to the gym and lifting heavy weights seems exhausting. Raise your hand if you’ve been there. I know I’ve got mine up nice and high! Well, there’s a reason you’ve felt that way and it’s totally normal!
Believe it or not, allowing your body rest and recovery after a few days of hard work is just as important as putting in the hard work! Yup! That’s right! While more may seem better when training, that is not always the case. There’s no arguing that working out keeps the heart healthy and the muscles strong, but not allowing your body adequate rest and recovery from your workouts can lead to burnout, inflammation and possible injury. Your body needs time to heal in order to build strength. When we train, our muscle tissues breakdown and our muscle energy stores get worn-out. We end up feeling sore, tight, drained. Rest and recovery allow the muscles and tissues time to repair and restore themselves, enhancing your performance and promoting muscle growth and ultimately fat loss. Overtraining, or not taking rest days, interrupts your body’s natural process of rebuilding itself and ultimately slows down your progress towards your goals. Everyone needs rest days. Even the strongest athletes and Olympians take rest days to improve their performance!
So, how do you know when the body needs rest? Well, it’s different for everyone! Luckily, the body does a pretty great job at letting you know when it needs a break! Think of your body like a car and its gas tank! When you fill your gas tank, your car gets a certain amount of miles until it empties out. Every car’s mileage is different. Some tanks run out of gas sooner depending on how often the car is being driven, whether it's driving at a higher speed or lower speed, or just based on how big or small the tank is. Chances are you have a pretty good idea of how far your car can go before it needs a refill and you’ve made a habit of carefully watching your gas gauge to make sure you don’t run out of gas or risk your car breaking down. At some point the gas runs out and you fill it up to make sure it can get you where you need to go and drive smoothly all week! YOUR body works the exact same way! Rest and recovery allow your body time to fill YOUR gas tank back up so you can perform better and avoid shutting down! Just like a car needing gas looks different for each car, when your body needs rest can look different from person to person. It depends on how often you train, the intensity of your training (i.e. high-intensity circuits versus pure strength training versus steady state cardio versus metabolic workouts), what muscle groups you train that week, and how long your training sessions are. It can also depend on other important factors like how much sleep you’re getting, what you’re eating and your stress levels. All of these play a part in alerting your body that it’s time to take a day off.
Well, what exactly does a rest day look like? Again, it depends! The words rest and recovery are often used interchangeably, but they can actually mean two different things for the way your body restores itself in between more challenging workout days. Rest days are days out of the gym, not spent training, where you give your body an opportunity to quite simply, just rest. This could be sitting on the couch after work and doing nothing. It could mean using the extra time to catch up on your favorite show with family, catch up on that book you put down weeks ago, or get a couple extra hours of sleep. It can also be activities like sitting in a sauna, going for a deep-tissue massage or stretching and foam-rolling. The best part is, you get to decide what your body and mind needs most!
Recovery on the other hand is more active, allowing for a little more activity than a full rest day. It’s an opportunity for your body to recover by maximizing your body’s repair process. It usually consists of low-intensity or no-impact exercises that promote blood flow to the muscles, reduce lactic build up in the muscles and cut down on inflammation. Think exercises where you are working at a more restorative pace (about 50% – 70% effort) like cycling, swimming, light jogging, steady rowing, taking a walk or restorative yoga! It can even be strength training with lighter weight, lower reps and a slower pace – deloading from the heavy weights you are typically pushing in the gym. These are great ways to keep the body moving but still allow the body to repair itself!
So, to recap! Why are rest days and recovery days so important? It’s so important to work rest and active recovery days into your programming as your body needs time to restore and heal those hard working muscles. Avoiding rest and recovery days leads to things like repetitive stress injuries and overtraining – both limiting your performance and muscle growth. Unsure when to add them in? Take it week by week! On days where you feel like you’re dragging, your body is too sore to train, or your sleep wasn’t great – take a rest day! You aren’t being lazy! You’re not working less than or not as hard as others! You’re just giving your body a little extra love so that it can work smarter towards your goals. On days when you feel just slightly sore but know that a bootcamp session or a heavy lift will be tough to get through, keep your body moving and opt for an active recovery day. Grab a friend or your family and go for that bike ride, that walk, or that hike you’ve been trying to sneak into your busy schedule and let your body restore itself! And hey! It’s okay to have both a rest and recovery day in your week. Your body will thank you later!