Exactly What to Do On Your Rest Days

To maximise performance, you need to recover as hard as you train.

To maximise performance, you need to recover as hard as you train.

Running can be addictive. Whether you use it as a way to socialize, as an escape from too many hours at your computer, or as a chance to get competitive, it’s hard to say no to a run. But taking a day off on a regular basis is crucial to maintaining your performance as an athlete. 

Without rest, your body doesn’t have a chance to recuperate from the stress caused by exercise—and you can’t make adaptations without that time away from the sport. “When you challenge your muscles physically through exercise, they’re breaking down tissue as well as using glycogen (energy) stores,” explains Beret Loncar, a massage and yoga therapist, running coach.

After a workout, that micro-damage to the cells in your muscles needs to repair and rebuild so they can be even stronger for your next workout, she adds—and that’s best done during a time when you’re not continuing to tax your body.

What’s more: Rest days can prevent injury by keeping overtraining in check. “There’s a certain amount of stress that your body is able to handle—not just training or time on legs, but the whole cumulative burden of stress from life events. If you move beyond your body’s ability to cope with this total load, your health suffers,” says Loncar. “The easiest way to imagine this is a cup that you fill with water. Any time you do something that requires work, you put a little water in the cup. The cup does not have an infinite capacity, so at a certain point, the cup will overflow. When that happens, it puts your health at risk and leaves you open to injury.”

To keep your body working optimally and to avoid overdoing it, here’s why you should program time off into any running regimen—and how to maximize that time off to get the most out of your training.

Is a rest day different from an active recovery day?

A rest day is one that “doesn’t involve exercise at all,” says coach Tim Montgomery. “I tell my clients it’s useful to think of these days like a good night’s sleep.” (Sleep, by the way, may actually be the single most important factor in exercise recovery, according to research from the International Journal of Sports Medicine.)

The point of that is to give your muscles a break on a molecular and cellular level, says Megan Sloan, an RRCA-certified run coach and physical therapist at Smith Physical Therapy and Running Academy in Crystal Lake, IL. “Your body requires a full night of sleep each night to function properly on a day-to-day basis. Why would this theory not apply to a runner and their run legs as well?” she says. “Time away from our running shoes allows the muscles to repair themselves, giving us what we need in return: more miles on fresh legs.”

An active recovery day, on the other hand, “is more like a short nap than a good night’s sleep,” says Montgomery. “It includes lower-intensity activities to get the blood flowing to your muscles to help them recover.” 

Active recovery can include any kind of cross-training—like walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, and strength training—that lets your body move in a different way, which can benefit your running and help prevent injury without adding more strain to your muscles, adds Loncar. Think about walking compared to running: It’s a similar movement pattern, but you use your muscles differently, stress your ligaments and tendons in other ways, and expose your body to way less impact.

The key with these active recovery workouts is to keep the intensity to 30 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate, according to a 2019 review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. “These lower-intensity activities are enough to warm the body, loosen it up, and shake it out, but don’t put large recovery demands on your system,” explains Loncar.

Because every runner is different, the amount of rest and active recovery days a runner needs will vary. ​​But “for a newer runner, it’s best to aim for one full rest day per week, while still incorporating one to two active recovery days as well,” says Sloan. 

The more experienced you get, the more it becomes about listening to your body and figuring out what you need to maximize your performance. If you feel great, you might need less recovery time. But “if you experience any signs of overtraining, such as restlessness, poor sleep, fatigue, elevated heart rate, and poor recovery, you may want to up your amount of rest and 

cut back on training intensity or stress,” says Loncar. 

What should you do on full rest days?

The good news: A rest day can mean melting into your couch for 24 hours. The whole point is to not physically tax your body, and if that’s what works best for you, by all means, become one with those cushions.

“Culturally, some of us have issues with doing nothing, but it is totally OK and healthy to do nothing on a rest day,” says Loncar. “If you have trouble switching out of a type A mindset, you can try taking up mindfulness or meditation practicesto help you relax more quickly.”

But a smarter way to spend your rest day would involve being intentional about recovery work. “A rest day can involve recovery tools such as a foam roller, stretch strap, massage gun, or any other tool that helps your muscles,” says Sloan. 

Foam rolling after intense workouts was shown to relieve soreness over the next two days, according to a 2014 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, while massage guns used immediately post-workout reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in a 2019 study published in the Journal of International Medical Research.

You can also splurge a little bit: “On my full recovery days, I advocate getting a massage, ice baths, or getting into a hot tub. These were always my favorite ways to bounce back!” says Montgomery. Massage is one of the best recovery techniques for reducing DOMS and perceived fatigue, according to a 2018 meta-analysispublished in the journal Frontiers in Physiology. And cold-water immersion was found to reduce DOMS in a scientific review conducted in 2012 by the Cochrane Library, while a hot bath increases circulation to fatigued muscles and joints, a 2016 study in the Journal of Physiology found. 

The biggest thing: Pick something not because you think it’s good for you, but because you feel good doing it. A huge part of rest and recovery is mental, so if you do something you enjoy—whether that’s treating yourself to a massage or binging Squid Game on Netflix—that’s going to make you feel your best.

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