Active rest — the most famous oxymoron of the fitness world! Whether you’re working on weight loss or in love with your daily workout, you might be tempted to skip active rest for another strength workout. BUT the harder you work out, the more you need active rest. Your body needs time to heal and adapt, which it can’t do if you’re ripping your muscles daily like there’s no tomorrow.
On an active rest day, you take a break from your regular training to give your body a chance to rest. That doesn’t mean you have to sit on the couch and do nothing. It’s active rest that’s low intensity and low key.
Active rest isn’t chilling on the couch eating Cheetos. (No offense, Cheetos. You’re delicious.) You can’t get stronger if your muscles don’t have time to rest, repair, and rebuild. Active rest warms the muscles without doing more damage, allowing them the repair time they need.
A healthy training schedule includes at least 1 day of active rest per week. However, you might need 2 or even 3 if you’re lifting heavy weights or on an intense training schedule.
How you feel largely determines how many active rest days you need. Excess fatigue and muscle soreness that contribute to decreased performance is a sure sign you need more active rest (or just rest, in some cases).
The human body is an amazing biological machine that adapts to the demands you put on it. BUT bad things happen when you don’t give your body the time it needs to recover. An imbalance between workouts/competition and rest can cause overtraining syndrome (OTS). Signs of overtraining include:
- overuse injuries, such as shin splints, sprains, or strains
- recurrent injuries or injuries that won’t heal
- excess fatigue (you don’t have the energy for normal activity)
- excessive delayed onset muscle soreness
- reduced appetite
- weight loss
- difficulty with normal workouts
- reduced strength, reaction times, or speed
- insufficient sleep
Without active rest, just when you think you should be getting bigger, stronger, and faster, your performance goes down.
For hardcore athletes and fitness enthusiasts, it can be hard to take a break from your normal routine for fear of falling behind or because you love how you feel after pushing yourself. But active rest days let you push yourself further and help you see the gains you’ve worked so hard to achieve. Even if you’re an exercise newbie, you need active rest. As you plan your active rest day, think low intensity movement that causes little physical and mental stress.
Here are a few ideas for an active rest day:
You should be able to carry on a conversation while doing the activity — a hike that’s got you wheezing is too much. These low intensity activities can help you work through lingering muscle soreness and give your mental health a boost by letting your mind and body relax.
If you’re still unsure what to do on an active rest day. Here are a few workouts to try — base the duration and intensity on your current fitness level and the difficulty of your regular workout routine.
Active rest day 1 — stretching
- Warm up with 10 minutes of low intensity cardio, like walking or biking.
- Foam roll your sore spots and trouble areas for 10 minutes. For example, roll out your calves, IT bands, quads, and glutes if your legs are sore.
- Static stretch the same muscle groups for 10 minutes. Static stretches are when you stretch and hold the muscle in the same position for at least 30 seconds. If you’re working on your legs, stretch each muscle group, targeting the calves, IT bands, quads, and various stretches for the glutes.
- Do 10 to 15 minutes of low intensity dynamic (active) stretches, such as leg swings, easy jumping jacks, or arms swings. Pick 4 or 5 dynamic stretches to create a circuit that you go through 2 or 3 times, with 1 or 2 minutes in between each circuit.
- Cool down with 10 minutes of low intensity cardio.
Active rest day 2 — yoga
One word — yoga. But skip power or hot yoga to give your body more of a break. Look for a class, DVD, or video that’s focused on stretching and mobility rather than strength and power. The deep yogic breathing will do your muscles and mind good. Try not to get too intense and keep the workout under 45 minutes.
Active rest day 3 — walk or jog
A walk in the great outdoors can do wonders for your mental health. When walking, keep things at a low to medium intensity. You should be able to carry on a conversation.
Some athletes are in good enough shape that they can jog on their active rest days, but pass on jogging if you can’t keep chatting away while you do it. Keep your distance and duration low.
Active rest day 4 — light resistance training
Lifting light weights can enhance blood flow and aid recovery. Choose weights that are about 30 percent of your max. Your goal is lower weights with higher reps. Pick 4 or 5 resistance exercises and do 2 or 3 sets of 12 to 20 reps. When you’re done, your muscles should feel warm, but not tired.
Active rest days give your body time to recover and adapt to your workouts. These important workout days let you change up your routine, too. Choose activities that get your muscles and blood moving without pushing you to exhaustion. Shake things up with yoga, Pilates, hiking, or swimming at a low intensity. An active rest day should leave you feeling refreshed for a more intense workout in the next 1 or 2 days.