You already know you need to push your limits to keep reaching your fitness goals, whether you’re looking to shed a few pounds, nail a faster race time or sculpt your physique. But that time you take to rest between butt-kicking workouts? It’s just as important. In fact, without recovering properly, you could stall your progress — or worse, reverse it.
Trouble is, it’s easy to get carried away with hardcore exercise. “We have this mentality in America: If a little bit is good, then more is better,” says Pete McCall, CSCS, ACE-certified personal trainer and host of the All About Fitness podcast. One of the biggest mistakes people make in the pursuit of improved athleticism is going too hard on days they should be taking it easy, he adds. After all, exercise is only one piece of the fitness equation.
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“One of the biggest mistakes people make…is going too hard on days they should be taking it easy.”
As McCall reminds us, exercise puts physical stress on the body. And in order to see results from that stress, you need to give your muscles time to adapt and recover. “Fitness [improvements] happen after the workout, not during the workout,” McCall says. The best way to help your body recuperate and stay on track to reach your goals is to incorporate active recovery days into your weekly schedule. That means easy sessions done at no more than 60 to 70 percent of your maximum effort.
The reason: After a hard workout, the body initiates an inflammatory response to help you recover. But if you do too much high-intensity exercise, that inflammatory response can work against you. “High-intensity exercise increases inflammation in the body and actually weakens the immune system,” McCall says, which makes you much more susceptible to germs, especially during flu season. That could easily translate to more sick days and less gym-time. So don’t be afraid to take it easy in order to stay healthy.
On the flipside, “take it easy” doesn’t mean “do nothing.” The point of an active rest day is… to be active. So instead of grinding out heavy lifting reps or sprinting until you’re out of breath, flow through yoga poses or take a light jog.
The benefit of staying active — versus lounging on the couch for hours — is that you’ll keep blood flowing so you can get rid of the metabolic waste that accumulates in your tissues after a hard workout. “It’s like flushing out a car engine,” McCall explains. Moderate-intensity activity will also boost your circulation, introducing new oxygen and nutrients into your muscles, he adds. As a result, you’ll be ready to hit it hard again the next day — most likely without nagging soreness.
What Your an Active Rest Day Should Look Like
If you’re looking for a specific active recovery Rx, we have the low-down from McCall.
If you’re a heavy lifter… Include gentle yoga (like Hatha), core exercises (think: planks, reverse crunches, hanging leg raises), and bodyweight exercises like lunges, squats, pushups and pull-ups in your rest day. “You’re still using the same muscles as you were before,” McCall explains, “you’re just not placing the same mechanical forces on them.”
If you’re a snow sport enthusiast… You’ll benefit from taking a brisk walk, or a bodyweight strength class like TRX. Even sitting in a sauna or hot tub for 20 minutes will aid recovery, as the heat helps improve circulation, McCall says.
If you’re training for a marathon… Follow a long run at race pace with an easy, four-mile jog the next day. Keep the intensity low to moderate, and don’t let your jog turn into another training run. After all, the goal here is recovery, McCall says.
How to Know If You’re Resting Enough
One way to gauge intensity on an active rest day is to use the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale, or how hard you feel like your body is working. Simply rate your exertion on a 0-to-10 scale. Zero means you’re doing nothing at all, while 10 refers to an all-out effort (think: sprinting or lifting a weight for a one-repetition maximum). On active recovery days, aim for a 5 or 6 on the 0-to-10 scale. At this level, you should be breathing harder than normal, but not out of breath, McCall says.
Whether you’re a weight lifter, runner, cyclist, swimmer or fitness class junkie, you want to try to alternate intense workouts with low to moderate ones lasting 20 to 40 minutes. And try to take one complete rest day per week, McCall says. (Note: If you’re only exercising two or three times per week, you don’t need to factor in active recovery days as it’s key for people who exercise most days of the week.)
Only have time to squeeze in a sweat session a couple times a week? Aim to be as active as possible on your days off to hit that active recovery goal. That could mean taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking to your coworker’s office instead of sending an email and standing up during phone calls.