When you’re motivated and working toward a goal, it can feel counterintuitive to take a day off. Still, most exercisers know rest days should be taken. So let’s break down when and how to take them. Ahead, find everything you need to know about taking rest days, from why they’re a must to when you’ll need them.
THE REST DAY RATIONALE
It turns out, the ‘when’ of taking rest days depends partially on the ‘why.’ “What many people don’t realize is that the positive changes and benefits of exercise occur during rest, not during the exercise itself,” explains Tom Holland, MS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist , exercise physiologist and author. That means that if you want to see progress, taking time off is necessary. While the number of rest days you should take per week varies, Holland says one day off from working out per week is enough for most people. One important caveat, though: As intensity increases, so does the need for rest. So if all your workouts involve hitting the gym hard, you may need more days off than most.
That’s because your body uses time off from exercise to repair itself from your workouts. “Exercise can result in damage to tissues like muscle and bone, depletion in electrolyte, fluid and glycogen levels and alterations in hormones like cortisol,” says Kim Feeney, a sports dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist. “Rest days allow your body to refuel what you’ve lost, rebuild your injured tissues and reset your hormone levels.” Without rest days, the body has a tough time maintaining the same level of performance. What’s more, rest days can help people stay mentally committed to their workout routine, Feeney says, which is an often-overlooked benefit to taking them.
Though most exercisers understand rest days are crucial, they’re not sure exactly when they’re supposed to take them. Luckily, the answer is pretty simple. “Ideally, your rest day comes after your hardest training day, the one with the greatest duration and/or intensity and that stresses your body the most,” Holland says. That’s why marathon runners usually take Monday as their rest day after a long run on a Sunday. Similarly, if you have a total-body workout each week or take a workout class that always leaves you feeling exhausted, you’ll be best served by taking your rest day following that workout.
On the other hand, there are times when going off your schedule is the best course of action. “You must also listen to your body and be willing to change your rest day based on how you feel,” Holland says. “Top athletes check their resting heart rates upon waking. An elevated number indicates elevated stress levels. If the athlete has a hard workout scheduled, they will make it an easy recovery session or even take the day off completely.” You don’t necessarily have to get this technical, but if you wake up and feel exhausted on a day when you have a difficult workout scheduled, consider taking the day off or reducing the intensity.
TOTAL REST VS. ACTIVE RECOVERY
The day or two you take off completely from working out each week counts as total rest, but experts say you should also incorporate lower intensity exercise that allows your body to recover into your routine. This can mean anything from doing a foam rolling, mobility and stability-focused workout to doing a bout of low-intensity cardio. “The rule of thumb is generally that every hard workout should be followed by at least one, if not two, easier sessions,” Holland says. “These less intense workouts can be considered active recovery, allowing the body to assimilate the benefits of the hard session while maintaining and even possibly slightly improving your fitness level.”
Cross-training is also a great option if you don’t want to simply reduce the intensity of your regular routine, according to Holland. If you’re a runner, try swimming the day after a tough training run. If you weightlift, try a spin class the day after you lift heavy. Feeney also recommends ensuring your workouts themselves are programmed in a way that allows for recovery. “A safe guideline is to avoid stressing the same muscle group or doing the same activity within 24–48 hours,” she says. “For example, you wouldn’t want to do deadlifts two days in a row or high-intensity runs two days in a row.”
If you’re thinking of skipping total rest days and just focusing on active recovery, this is probably not the best approach, according to Holland. “Even the easier days still involve a certain amount of physiological stress, and there is therefore still a need for periodic complete rest days.” So rest easy and enjoy your hard-earned day off, knowing you’re actually helping your progress by not hitting the gym.