What To Do On Rest Days

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If you’re looking to achieve adaptation and progression in your health and fitness routine, you need rest days. Whether you’re looking to lose weight, gain muscle, improve performance, or anything else, your body won’t adapt during training. Change won’t be elicited through activity.

Physical training breaks your body down. The adaptation – the progression – comes when you’re resting. It comes when you sleep, when you take down time, when your body gets a chance to rebuild itself. This is when muscle will grow, when your metabolism levels out, when your mind-muscle connections will be embedded.

There are a few different ways to approach this down time. There are different things you can do. Everyone’s rest will look different. However, there are some fundamentals that we should all bear in mind if we want to make the most of our physical fitness.

Rest Days: Why They Are Important

Rest days are incredibly important. You can use them to take a complete break from physical activity, or you can use them to take part in active recovery (more on this later.) Either way, common scientific consensus is that regular rest days will help to prevent overtraining syndrome.

Overtraining syndrome can cause fatigue, sleep loss, weight gain, depression, and a severe dip in performance. Even small amounts of overtraining can diminish performance and take a toll on mental health aspects such as energy and drive.

The Fundamentals

Before you think about any kind of protocol or snazzy technique for your recovery, you need to nail the basics. Do these and nothing else and you’ll recover well. Miss them out and it doesn’t matter what else you do; you won’t get the results you want.

To recover properly from physical activity:

  • Sleep plenty, aiming for 7-9 hours per night. Your body recovers and builds muscle predominantly during sleep, so give it as much time to do so as possible. Consider taking a half hour nap in the middle of the day, in addition.
  • Eat right, balancing your macronutrients and taking in enough protein and healthy fat. Protein will help to build new muscle whilst fat will help your joints to recover. Both will promote optimal hormonal balance for recovery.
  • Hydrate, taking in plenty of water. We use up fluids when we train and when we recover, so anybody with an active lifestyle will need to drink more than those without one. Consider adding a scoop of electrolytes to one of your protein shakes to aid hydration.
  • Actively recover, performing some kind of low intensity exercise (more on this below).
  • Stretch and work mobility, practising foam rolling, yoga, or any other kind of relaxation and mobility.
  • Take some down time, allowing yourself to slob about on the couch for a little while, balancing out the physical side of your active lifestyle. Use this time productively, if you want, to do something completely unathletic – focus on a non-physical hobby like painting or reading, giving your brain time to unwind from an athletic mindset.

There are some things to avoid, too. These will overly strain your central nervous system, will overuse your muscles, and will hamper recovery.

Avoid:

  • Resistance training, at least for strength or hypertrophy. Resistance training of a different kind – like that elicited from yoga or Pilates, for example – can count as active recovery. Doing too much will be flogging a dead horse, and nobody wants to be a dead horse!
  • Overeating, because your metabolism feels like it is in overdrive, or because you somehow think you’ve earned extra calories by training. If you’ve planned your diet right, with a proper caloric and macronutrient breakdown, you will be getting everything you need. Stick to it or adjust it properly where needed. Don’t binge.
  • Try also to balance getting too into the gym and getting too comfortable on the couch. Rest for the day, knowing that you should still be moving about a bit, and knowing that you’ll be back into training tomorrow.

Active Recovery On Your Rest Days

In general, when we talk about ‘active recovery’, we’re talking about low-stress, low-intensity workout that follows on from a harder, more intense training session.

Active recovery is a way to stimulate the muscles, soft tissue and energy systems of the body, getting everything moving, without providing too much stress. It is more beneficial than inactivity or resting completely.

Active recovery will typically include things like walking and light swimming, that raise the heart rate and pump blood around the muscles without eliciting overload, and mobility work like yoga.

DOMS

It’s common for your muscles to ache a day or two after exercise, particularly if you’re using a new form of stimulation (a different style of training, a different discipline, or simply a more intense or high-volume session or two). This achiness is called Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS).

DOMS is often thought to be caused by microscopic damage to the muscle fibres, which results in soreness or stiffness.

The intensity, or even the presence, of DOMS symptoms can be greatly ameliorated with active recovery, though if you do everything right on a rest day you should also find them diminished.

The main thing we’re looking for in overcoming DOMS is a good blood pump. Active recovery can help to eliminate toxins and metabolic waste by improving blood flow.

During hard training, blood lactate may accumulate. This can lead to an increase in hydrogen ions present in the body. These are metabolic by-products that can lead to muscular fatigue and contraction. Increasing blood flow can decrease this accumulation, essentially washing them away (this is a very simplified description, but it does indeed work!)

Why Actively Recover?

Though complete rest can be beneficial to recovery, and we all need it from time to time, active recovery can give you so much more. The recovery process will rely in part on you maintain proper blood and lymph flow. As above, this can clear metabolic waste more efficiently. It will also provide vital nutrients to the muscles in greater quantities than rest.

It can also be an opportunity to open up more of a caloric deficit if this is needed for your goals. Though your primary training days and diet will be the main focus of any weight loss attempts, a decent walk every day can give you an extra few hundred calories for your deficit without being unduly stressful or fatiguing.

Active recovery can also be a great way to work on technique. It’s quite common for weightlifters and powerlifters to work on their lifting form on rest days, using lighter weights (around 20 – 40% of what they would usually lift). This way, they ca make sure that their mind-muscle connection and techniques are optimal for their heavier lifting days, so on those heavy days they can just focus on getting the work done.

They can also be good opportunities to plug the gaps in your training. For example, a weightlifter or powerlifter may be very strong, with great musculature, but if they are inflexible and have poor mobility then their quality of life will be impacted, as will their athletic performance, and they will be opening themselves up to injury over time. They may have poor cardiovascular fitness, inviting health problems over time.

Going for a couple of long walks each week and taking some time on their off-days to practice something like yoga, or even just running through some basic mobility routines, will plug these gaps.

Finally, the human body has a hormonal response to any and all physical activity. This is one of the main benefits of regular exercise – it cheers you up as adrenaline and dopamine are released. It also gives you more energy and helps you to overcome small amounts of pain and soreness.

Light exercise, therefore, can help you to overcome the feeling of fatigue often brought about in the wake of intense exercise. You will have more energy for moving more, even on your off-days, and your perception of soreness will be improved.

How Long Should You Devote to Recovery?

As above, at least one day per week should be given over to some form of rest day, whether this is active or passive/sedentary. However, to find what works best for you and your training regime, you will need to experiment. Take one day off and see how your energy levels, performance and results are. If you feel you need it, take another.

Try adding in some active recovery, too. For instance, a brisk walk could be a daily occurrence, lasting anything from half an hour to three hours (or maybe even more!) More intense forms of cardio, like swimming or jogging, shouldn’t be more than about half an hour. Ten to twenty minutes of stretching and mobility work on your rest days will suffice.

Other than this, work through the checklist above. Make sure that you’re eating and drinking the right amount. Make sure that you’re sleeping enough for proper recovery. Be kind to yourself – you’ve worked hard in the gym, now is the time to relax things a little and take a slower pace.

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