For many people who exercise regularly, the terms "rest" and "recovery" are used interchangeably, usually to mean something like, "the amount of time I have to force myself to stop working out." While both play a major role in injury prevention and are often tied together as buzzwords, they should be used in specific ways to enhance athletic performance.
There's more to success than the time you spend in the gym. Mastering both rest days and recovery time should be an essential part of your fitness plan, because they can help you get results faster and break plateaus. Here's everything you need to know about proper R and R!
At a basic level, rest days are filled with just that: resting. You might be lazing around on the couch, sleeping, napping, or lounging in a hammock. You won't be engaged in much physical activity—or at least you shouldn't be.
Your muscles will be busy, though. Rest days are when muscles perform necessary repairs, foster growth, and replenish glycogen, says Sloane Davis, certified nutritionist, personal trainer, and founder of the blog "Pancakes and Push-Ups." Glycogen is a stored form of carbohydrates, and it's your muscles' main fuel source for energy production. After a workout, glycogen is partially depleted and needs to be built back up in order to foster muscle growth.
Another major benefactor of rest time is your brain. According to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, visiting scholar at Stanford University and author of "Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less," your brain takes rest time as an opportunity to be more creative and problem solve.
"Rest is like sex, singing, or running," Soojung-Kim Pang says. "Everyone basically knows how to do it, but with a little work and understanding, you can learn to do it a lot better. You can learn how to enjoy rest more profoundly and be more refreshed and restored."
So, what steps should you take to perfect your rest? Rather than thinking of rest as a completely passive and mindless event that happens whenever you're not doing something else, Soojung-Kim Pang encourages people to schedule rest time and make it a priority.
"Rest can make us more creative and productive without forcing us into a funhouse mirror of endless work and ever-rising expectations," he says. "It makes our lives richer and more fulfilling."
Proper rest can improve stress levels, quality of sleep, and nutrition habits—qualities that are associated with more energy and endurance in the long run. If you don't make rest time a priority, you're unlikely to achieve your fitness goals
In contrast to rest, recovery—also referred to as "active recovery"—involves doing an easier workout than you would normally, says Davis.
The main purpose of active recovery is to increase blood flow in the body. The idea is to accelerate recovery by activating—but not overly challenging—your muscles. Active recovery can help remove metabolic byproducts like lactate from muscles, according to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise. Another study noted that active recovery improves mental resilience and may reduce the risk of exercise burnout.
Light activity will vary based on how much you usually exercise, what type of workouts you do, and how much recovery you need. For example, Davis notes that marathon runners can do an easy jog for active recovery, and a weightlifter can do a few sets of lighter weights and lower reps to aim for less intensity overall. Stepping out of your standard routine and switching things up by integrating yoga, Pilates, swimming, or bodyweight exercises into your routine is another good option.
One way to know if your recovery time is effective is to gauge whether you feel better after the workout than when you started, Davis advises. This indicates you haven't pushed too hard and that you're lowering stress hormones like cortisol—another important goal for recovery days.
The Best Way to Implement Rest and Recovery
How much rest and recovery time you need—and when to time it—depends on a number of factors, including the intensity of your exercise, how fast your body tends to recover, what you eat, and how much stress you manage in daily life.
Davis suggests keeping a log of workouts and rest/recovery time to begin to track what works best for you. For example, many people benefit from working out for two days, taking a recovery day, then working out for three days and taking another recovery day. Others might opt for a single recovery day per week, and work out the other six days.
A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggests that for optimal strength development, one to two rest days between sessions is ideal for beginners who are training three days per week. Best of all, you can blend rest and recovery into a single day by doing a light workout first and then focusing on rest time afterward. "If you're looking to boost performance, then these days are crucial for growth and repair," says Davis. "They're when the magic happens."
By making time for both rest and recovery, you can take advantage of the benefits each has to offer, and you'll likely see performance gains as a result. "You'll go back to your next workout fully charged and replenished," says Davis.
- Ahmaidi, S., Granier, P., Taoutaou, Z., Mercier, J., Dubouchaud, H., & Prefaut, C. (1996). Effects of active recovery on plasma lactate and anaerobic power following repeated intensive exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 28(4), 450-456.
- Suzuki, M., Umeda, T., Nakaji, S., Shimoyama, T., Mashiko, T., & Sugawara, K. (2004). Effect of incorporating low intensity exercise into the recovery period after a rugby match. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 38(4), 436-440.
- Rhea, M. R., Alvar, B. A., Burkett, L. N., & Ball, S. D. (2003). A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 35(3), 456-464.