After you’ve slogged through a Tough Mudder or sweated through a week of The Master’s Hammer and Chisel workouts, it’s no surprise that you could use a break. The terms “rest” and “recovery” are often used interchangeably when in reference to exercise, and while they’re similar — rest is a component of recovery in the same way REM is a part of sleep — they are not the same thing at all.
“You don’t need to be a couch potato on your rest days,” says Beachbody’s Fitness and Nutrition Content Manager Trevor Thieme. “You can still do your daily activities, such as running errands, but you should avoid performing vigorous activity or exercise that gets the blood pumping — and that may include something like strenuous yard work.” (Because that “the dog ate the rake” excuse only works…well, never.)
The objective of a rest day is to boost mental and physical recharging. “Recovery” is the overarching process. It occurs while you rest and provide the body adequate time to replace and rebuild what’s been lost — tissue, fluids, your dignity…all of it.
What Is the Difference Between a Rest Day and an Active Recovery Day?
How much rest the human body requires varies from person to person and hinges on numerous factors such as sleep, age, and fitness level. “You should place more emphasis on sleep during rest days,” says Thieme. “It’s such an important part of the recovery process because it helps muscles repair, recover, and grow stronger.” To that end, our experts recommend getting more than seven hours of shut-eye per night.
Then there are “active recovery” days. On these days, Thieme explains, “you remain active, but use less intensity than you would during a regular workout. If you’re a runner training for a 10K, an active recovery day might involve cross-training, a bike ride, or running at a less intense, conversational pace. You’re not looking to directly enhance strength, power, or athleticism; instead, active recovery will indirectly promote all of those things by getting blood flowing to muscles to enhance and accelerate the recovery process.”
The Benefits of Dynamic Stretching and Foam Rolling
Two key things that help you on both rest days and active recovery days are dynamic (moving) stretches and foam rolling.
Dynamic or active stretches are typically done pre-workout and may include butt kicks, walking lunges, shoulder circles, arm swings, shin taps. All movements should be completed with low intensity. The intention is to get you to break a sweat without venturing into “well now I’m completely drenched” territory. By the end of your warm-up, you should have plenty of energy to exert during working sets.
Foam rolling, also called self-myofascial release, is a form of self-massage that “helps release tension in muscle and connective tissue, among other benefits,” Thieme says.
Both activities can increase blood flow, range of motion, and improve athletic performance. Foam rolling has also been shown to reduce muscle soreness. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Athletic Training concluded that foam rolling produced a medium to large benefit for reducing the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) compared to subjects who did not roll.
Listen to Your Body to Determine Your Active Recovery Needs
Another factor that can impact recovery is your inability to keep your ego or competitive nature in check during rest days or active recovery workouts. “For many exercisers, keeping it dialed back — especially on active recovery days — can be a quite a challenge,” Thieme says. “For some athletes, that competitive instinct kicks in and suddenly the pace picks up.”
So, when your body’s begging for rest or recovery with stretching or gentler cross-training methods like the foam roller, respectfully provide it with what it needs to heal, rebuild and recharge.