What's the Difference Between Rest Days and Active Recovery?
The terms “rest” and “recovery” are often used interchangeably in reference to exercise. While they’re similar — rest is a component of recovery in the same way REM is a part of sleep — they’re not the same thing at all.
“You don’t need to be a couch potato on your rest days,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., and Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content. “You can still do your daily activities, such as running errands. But you should avoid performing vigorous activity or exercise that gets the blood pumping. That may include something like strenuous yard work.”
The objective of a rest day is to boost mental and physical recharging. “Recovery” is the overarching process. It occurs while you rest and provide the body adequate time to replace and rebuild what’s been lost — tissue, fluids, your dignity, all of it.
You hear elite athletes talk about taking rest days and active recovery days. But a rest day is important even if you don’t consider yourself an athlete. So if you just started a program and are new to the stimuli and physical stress of working out, or if you’ve been working to your maximum capacity with high-intensity training every day, you want to make sure to give your body a break from time to time. Without effective rest days, you risk canceling out all that hard work you’ve been putting in.
“Heavy exercise designed to elicit maximum gains in strength and power damages muscle to an extent,” explains Elaine Choung-Hee Lee, Ph.D., associate director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut. “Day after day with little time between heavy training sessions, muscle may not have time to fully recover. You’ll actually see a decrease in strength, power, and endurance.”
What’s the Difference Between Rest and Active Recovery?
How many rest days the human body requires varies from person to person. The answer hinges on numerous factors, such as sleep, age, and fitness level.
“You should place more emphasis on sleep during rest days,” says Thieme. “It’s such an important part of the recovery process. It helps muscles repair, recover, and grow stronger.”
Our experts recommend getting more than seven hours of shut-eye per night.
Then there are “active recovery” days. On these days, Thieme explains, “You remain active, but use less intensity than you would during a regular workout. If you’re a runner training for a 10K, an active recovery day might involve cross-training, a bike ride, or running at a less intense, conversational pace. You’re not looking to directly enhance strength, power, or athleticism. Instead, active recovery will indirectly promote all of those things by getting blood flowing to muscles to enhance and accelerate the recovery process.”
Benefits of Dynamic Stretching and Foam Rolling
Two keys that help you on both rest days and active recovery days are dynamic (moving) stretches and foam rolling.
Dynamic or active stretches: These are typically done pre-workout. They may include butt kicks, walking lunges, shoulder circles, arm swings, and shin taps. All movements should be completed with low intensity.
The intention is to get you to break a sweat without venturing into “now I’m completely drenched” territory. By the end of your warm-up, you should have plenty of energy to exert during working sets.
Foam rolling: Also called self-myofascial release, foam rolling is a form of self-massage. It helps release tension in muscle and connective tissue, among other benefits.
Both activities can increase blood flow, range of motion, and improve athletic performance. Foam rolling has also been shown to reduce muscle soreness. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training concluded that use of a foam roller produced a medium to large benefit in reducing the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Listen to Your Body to Determine Your Recovery Needs
Working out causes microscopic tears in muscle tissue. As your body repairs the damage, it remodels your muscles into larger, stronger versions of themselves. This allows them to better handle the strains of working out next time. This process also entails a certain amount of inflammation, which can take up to three days to resolve.
In addition to the physical effects, intense workouts can also tax the nervous system.
“On a recovery day, the sympathetic nervous system — the ‘fight-or-flight’ response — is decreased and the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system is stimulated,” says Mike Bracko, C.S.C.S., exercise physiologist and fellow in the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). “This allows the body to rest and relax, cortisol levels to decrease, muscles to rest and rebuild stronger, and carbohydrate stores to be replenished.”
You should take off at least one or two rest days per week. In fact, the ACSM recommends beginners give themselves a rest day in between workouts. If you’re completely gassed from training hard, take that as a cue to take a full day off, Bracko says.
This plays into another factor that can impact recovery — your inability to keep your ego or competitive nature in check during rest days or active recovery workouts.
“For many exercisers, keeping it dialed back — especially on active recovery days — can be a quite a challenge,” says Thieme. “For some athletes, that competitive instinct kicks in and suddenly the pace picks up.”
When your body’s begging for rest or recovery with stretching or gentler cross-training methods like the foam roller, respectfully provide it with what it needs to heal, rebuild and recharge.