When you’re working toward a fitness goal like running a 10K or making it to the top of the leaderboard in your Spin class, taking a rest day may seem counterproductive. After all, the more hard work and sweat you put in, the better result you’ll get, right?
In reality, the opposite couldn’t be more true. Rest days are crucial to help propel you to your fitness goals. Your muscles need to take time off from working hard in order to rest, recover, and rebuild.
That being said, you don’t need to sit around with your feet up when a rest day rolls around. Light movement like walking, swimming, or cycling may actually be beneficial to helping you recover faster. Here are some ideas for rest day workouts, and how to know when you’re overdoing it and when you’re getting enough, well, rest.
Why Are Rest Days Important, Exactly?
Think of rest days as not just a chance for you to take a break from hitting the weights or the treadmill, but also a chance for your muscles to recover.
“Rest days are very important because they allow the body to fully recover,” says CJ Hammond, XPS certified personal trainer. “You don’t want to work out muscle groups when they are exhausted because it can lead to injury. Exhausted muscles can minimize the amount of results the body could yield. Our body is the most important machine, [and] it can adapt to stress and thrive in that same environment which will lead to the physical changes we're looking for. Rest is important because you need to replenish the energy system and detoxify the oxidation the body is going through during strength training.”
More specifically, your muscle tissues are experiencing micro tears when you train, and resting gives them the chance they need to rebuild and get stronger, explains Jonathan Roussel, certified personal trainer. “When working out, you're putting your muscles through micro-traumas (tears in your muscle tissue) which cause soreness. You need to allow them time to recover,” he says.
Plus, Roussel says, your body could use the mental break, too, so you can come back motivated for the next day. “A mental break is essential in avoiding any fitness burnout,” he says.
How Many Rest Days Should You Take?
How many rest days you’ll want to take each week depends on a few factors, like how often you work out, how intense your workouts are, and your fitness level. Roussel recommends basing your rest days on the following:
- If you are getting back into fitness after an injury or break: 3
- You work out several days a week/you’re in good physical shape: 2
- You’re an avid or seasoned athlete: 1
Of course, some weeks you may need an extra rest day or two, and that’s completely OK. It’s important to listen to your body. “If you notice that you are plateauing with your strength gains or performance gains, it is important to step away from the strength training and implement yoga, soft tissue work or massages,” recommends Hammond.
Five Workouts for Rest Days
Keegan Draper, fitness specialist at Mindbody and NASM CPT, likes to do a 30-minute stretching session on rest days. “I’ll start with a full-body stretch, beginning with my legs, and will make my way all the way up through my trunk and neck, spending about 20-30 seconds on each stretch,” she says. “I make sure to isolate different muscle groups and body segments. From there, I’ll transition into some easy movement exercises, rocking back and forth from a quadruped position, leg kickouts, different crawls and rolling motions into some light lunge steps. I ultimately just try to move around.”
Leisurely Walk or Hike
Draper likes to follow up her stretching session with a leisurely 3-5 mile walk. “For my walk, I grab my dog and we will either go down to the beach or into town and walk at a nice comfortable and steady pace, usually at about a 15 minutes/mile walking pace,” she says. “While walking, I spend time focusing on my posture, my gait, my alignment, and my breath. My heart rate stays below 100.”
Erin Motz, yoga instructor and co-founder of Bad Yogi, likes to do a gentle but active yoga routine on her rest days. “I like to do about 10-20 minutes of yoga when I'm taking an active rest day. This short practice includes plenty of grounding poses, like twists, full-body stretches (cat/cow, forward folds, low lunges), and some gentle sun salutations,” she says. “The reason I recommend gentle yoga for active rest days is that it helps to stretch sore muscles, and is a great way to wind down and reset after a week of working out.”
Swimming is non-weight bearing, which makes it a great way to recover says Tom Holland, exercise physiologist and 25-time Ironman. “One of my favorite active rest workouts is an easy mile swim performed at an extremely low intensity. It is perfect after particularly hard workouts including running, cycling, and full-body strength training,” he says. He recommends the following:
Active Rest Swim Session (1 mile):
- 200 meters easy freestyle warm-up
- 3 x 100 meters pull buoy/100 meters easy freestyle
- 12 x 25 breaststroke/25 easy freestyle
- 200 meters easy freestyle cool-down
Pick-Up Games, or Sports With Friends
John Fawkes, NSCA-certified personal trainer, likes to spend his rest days playing a game or two of beach volleyball with friends. “I'm a big fan of playing beach volleyball on my rest days, as well. I'll organize a pick-up game with some friends, which keeps everything pretty laid back and relaxed,” he says. “I'm not really trying to break into a sweat here, just looking to stay on my feet, get fresh air, and move my body for about an hour.”
If beach volleyball isn’t your thing, try kickball, softball, or frisbee. Anything that you enjoy and can have fun with while doing light movement is ideal.
Stewart RD, Duhamel TA, Rich S, Tupling AR, Green HJ. Effects of Consecutive Days of Exercise and Recovery on Muscle Mechanical Function. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008;40(2):316-325. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e31815adf02