No two athletes are alike. Between experience levels, raw talent, age, endurance, muscle mass, and more, different people have different needs when it comes to training. A pro football player requires a very different workout from a casual intramural soccer player, who will in turn have different workout needs from someone who takes up jogging for the first time to lose weight.
No matter what kind of athlete you are—or what you want to be—there are two things you absolutely cannot neglect: rest and recovery.
Though they are often conflated, rest and recovery aren’t exactly the same. Rest is the time you spend not training or exercising. Sleep is a critical part of rest, and you can also count easy daily activities like watching TV, going out to eat, and light housework (doing the dishes, not raking the yard) as part of a rest day.
Recovery, more often called active recovery, involves staying active, but at a much less intense level. You might go for a gentle jog on an active recovery day, or swim a few laps, but you wouldn’t train hard.
Rest: Using Your Down Time to Help Your Gym Time
Most athletes know they should incorporate rest days into their training, but plenty still feel guilty for doing so. People who are starting a workout program for the first time often dismiss rest days because of that beginner’s zeal.
But rest days aren’t a concession to weakness, nor a sign that you lack enthusiasm for working out. Getting rest after strenuous exercise is a scientific necessity if you want to improve your performance.
Contrary to popular belief, muscle growth does not actually occur in the gym. During a workout, micro-tears are created in your muscle tissue when a weight is lifted, or a resistance activity is performed. This is why you might feel sore after a hard workout. However, it’s only during the downtime in the 24 to 48 hours after a workout that the body goes to work healing these micro-tears. Over time, the body responds to this repeated process of micro-tears and healing by increasing muscle mass. The muscle becomes more striated, and there’s less fat in between the muscles, so you get more definition and bulk.
So when you overtrain or push your body too hard without taking time to rest, you’re robbing your body of the time it needs to heal. Keep in mind that this is true no matter how experienced an athlete you are—you never reach a point where your muscles don’t need time to recover after a heavy workout. Muscle gains do not occur overnight and any training program that promises immediate or miraculous visible results should not be trusted. It is only with time, patience, and rest between strenuous activity that the best results possible are seen.
On your rest day, make sure to prioritize sleep. Most healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. Sleep in if you have to and plan for a low-key day. Light stretching or foam rolling is fine. Because so much of fitness is actually mental, you can use your rest days to feed your other interests—read a book, watch a movie, draw, cook, or catch up with friends. This way, you’ll avoid the mental boredom and burnout that can happen when you exercise too much.
Active Recovery: Getting the Blood Flowing
The purpose of an active recovery is to get the blood gently flowing to help the body as it repairs muscle microtears.
What you do on your active recovery days depends on your overall fitness, goals, and experience. Runners, for example, might spend their active recovery days taking a bike ride, cross training, or going for a shorter run at a pace where they can still hold a conversation. You’re not looking to get sore or push yourself. Aim for 60 to 70 percent effort—don’t go all-out. Yoga and swimming are also great for active recovery.
Beyond light exercise, there are other techniques and treatments that can promote recovery. For example, massage, saunas, ice baths, warm baths, physical therapy, and water therapy are all utilized by pro athletes for this purpose. The goal of these treatments is to alleviate pain and minimize the amount of time needed for healthy tissue regeneration and healing.
How Often to Schedule Rest and Recovery Days
Some trainers recommend having separate rest and recovery days if your workouts are very strenuous and/or you’re in rigorous training for a challenging event. If your usual workouts are less intense, you may be able to combine rest and active recovery days.
If you’re new to working out, you should probably have at least two rest and recovery days per week. If you’re more experienced, you can decrease that to just one. When in doubt, the best practice is to consult your trainer or coach for help coming up with an on-day/off-day schedule that fits your fitness needs and goals.