Workout days in your exercise program are simple to follow: you just do the workout. Then, on your “rest days”, you feel like a lost duckling. Do you run on the treadmill? Or maybe do lighter weights? A bike ride on a unicycle up a mountain sounds nice. How about this: try actually letting your body rest.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona.
“Rest” Is Often Misunderstood
There’s a reason rest days are intentionally woven into workout programs. In fact, rest is necessary for progress. When you exercise — particularly when you do really intense stuff like training for a marathon or lifting heavy weights — you’re damaging your muscle fibres, which sometimes leads to that hurt-so-good soreness. And it’s really the rest and recovery that let you repair muscles, get fitter and inch ever closer toward Bruce Banner status.
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) defines a rest day as a non-training day, where you’re not challenging your body. A non-training day seems straightforward, but the meaning of “not challenging”, on the other hand, can be open to interpretation.
Some people interpret it as a licence for a cheat day or just do nothing -- the latter of which I actually encourage if you already work out too much. I used to work with people who took rest days to mean activity that was the exact opposite of resting. They might go for a "quick run" that ended up being 13km; or do high-intensity interval training right after squats and deadlifts. That's on top of training five to six days a week, sometimes twice a day. Those are pretty stressful rest days.
Of course, these are extreme cases, but the urge to be extreme in fitness is more common than you think.
Refusing to Properly Rest Hurts You in the Long Run
You've heard the sayings: "No pain, no gain", or "Pain is weakness leaving the body." When you glorify pain and an aching body as part of fitness, you have a much harder time forgiving yourself for having a life and missing a gym session, or screwing up. And this tends to lead to more self-sabotaging behaviour (binge-eating or falling off the fitness wagon completely).
Worse, if you work out intensely every day (or something close to it) in some capacity, you run your body ragged.
Ideally, your fitness cycle should be: Work out, recover, profit, repeat. The recovery part is necessary for you to keep up this cycle over and over again and be able to see those results in the long run. But remember, you're (probably) not only exercising. You've got a life, a job, a family, Game of Thrones spoilers and so many other stressors. These will all impact your ability to recover from your workouts.
And let's not gloss over the fact that fitness is 50 per cent physical and 50 per cent mental. I know I spend a lot of time thinking about how to crush my workouts, what to do to get the most out of them, the "right amount" of reps and sets, what glorious thing I'm going to eat afterward or whether the stripes on these socks match the colour of my shorts. Whew, I sure as hell could use a little brain holiday from exercise every now and then.
All of these stressors will have rippling effects on not only your workout performance but on other areas of your life, too. A little extra strenuous activity here and there isn't a big deal. But by the time you really do need that rest, it may be too late: you've burnt out. As a result, your motivation and energy levels will get hit hard; you'll get lacklustre or no results; you'll make yourself more prone to injuries; or worse, you'll start to see exercise as a chore.
Rest Doesn't Have to Mean Doing Absolutely Nothing
At the same time, plenty of people have told me that deliberate rest would be too disruptive to their "hot" workout streak. That is, they're stuck on this idea that if they take some time to rest, it will mess up their momentum and be much harder to get crackin' to work out again.
If that's you, you don't have to stop entirely. Instead of being completely still, you can do what's called /"active recovery", where you're still moving, just letting your body recover. ACE and many coaches advocate engaging in some sort of movement, but advise that it should be easy on the body. Here are some ideas on what that might look like:
- Do some mobility work: Mobility refers to how well your joints and body move. If you sit at a desk all day, you can probably work on your mobility to improve your posture and range of motion (like in your upper back and hips). Besides, better mobility can translate to better performance in the gym, too. Your rest days are the perfect opportunity to fit in light mobility and flexibility work. Yoga or foam rolling can be part of this regimen.
- Practise technique: Dan John, a veteran strength and throwing coach from Burlingame, California, once said: "If it is important, do it every day. If it's not important, don't do it at all." Obviously, getting better at something is important. So, whether you're learning a new weightlifting move or trying to improve your running stride, use your rest day to practise. If you're practising a weightlifting move, I recommend using a broomstick in place of a barbell. A lot of repetitions even with just the barbell could tire you out.
- Do cardio (only if you want): You're probably told to just do cardio on the exercise machines on your rest days. You can, but don't feel like you need to, especially if you're already pretty active. Do it only because you want to and it's actually a way for you to feel relaxed.
- Take your activity outside: Hike, jog, bike, play catch, swim, prance or do anything you enjoy. When you spend all your time working out indoors, it's nice to be able to mix it up with doing something outside. Recreational sports are great, but sports like soccer, football, basketball, Ultimate frisbee and so on can also be really intense. If you're playing at a competitive level on a regular basis and feel beat, talk to a coach who specialises in your sport about designing a proper in-season training protocol.
When you feel really run-down and lack the energy and motivation to work out, it's a dead giveaway that something needs to go. Obviously, you can't just easily toss aside many of your life's obligations, but you can always cut down on your activity. Instead, you can spend a day preparing your meals on your rest day. Heck, if you want to, you can sit on your arse to play video games or read a book at the park. You should take at least one day of rest like that.
More often than not, doing too much exercise is counterproductive. Being fit and healthy requires the interplay between rest and exercise, which in turn bring you results and all those other health benefits. So, take care of your body. That's why you're working out in the first place.