Active Recovery: How to Crush Your Non-Workout Days

Active Recovery

Working out is great, and consistency is a good thing (and necessary for progress), but every now and then, you need a rest day. Yet if you’re on a roll with your exercise program, you might be afraid to slow down and lose your momentum. Should you consider throwing an active recovery day into the mix?

If you’re gung-ho and don’t want to lose your rhythm, but your body definitely needs a break, you can use what’s called “active recovery” to keep it fresh and fun while allowing your body the recovery time it needs.

What is Active Recovery?

When you’re hitting it hard in the gym day in and day out, at some point, you’re going to need to take a break so your body can rest, recover, and rejuvenate. Most people take at least one day off a week. What you do on that day off depends on you and your goals, but many fitness enthusiasts choose to not take a true day “off,” but instead incorporate a day of active recovery into their routines.

What, exactly, does active recovery mean? It means you are in recovery mode, but not in sedentary mode. You don’t need to sit on the couch all day or take several naps to get the type of recovery you need. You can still be active and enjoy various sports, walking, a light jog, biking, and any other physical activity. Basically, the point is to give your body a break from your normal exercise routine but to still get in some type of movement.

So, if your routine is usually resistance training and a few high-intensity interval training sessions per week, your recovery day is the day to scale it back. If you choose to move, do so with less intensity, and choose things that are not the norm for you—movements that will engage your body differently than when you are training.

This is the perfect time for outdoor activities, fun excursions with friends, stretching, yoga, and flexibility exercises.

Why Do You Need Rest?

Rest is important, especially if you push yourself regularly at the gym. Your body needs the chance to rejuvenate and repair itself. When you exercise, especially with resistance training, you cause microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. This is completely normal and is actually how muscle mass is built. That said, you still need rest to give yourself the chance to heal and fully recuperate before hitting it hard again.

Research shows that rest days are important and can be beneficial for healing and even for making gains when it comes to working out.1 “Heavy exercise designed to elicit maximum gains in strength and power damages muscle to an extent,” says Elaine Choung-Hee Lee, Ph.D., who is the associate director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut.

She goes on to say, “Day after day with little time between heavy training sessions, muscle may not have time to fully recover. You’ll actually see a decrease in strength, power, and endurance.” Researchers advocate allotting 2 – 3 days between training of muscle groups. This is a good strategy to follow and will allow for adequate active recovery.

What Are the Benefits of Active Rest

If you’re worried that taking a day off will stall your progress, don’t. Studies show that athletes who exercise with intensity up to six times a week don’t have better results than those who train with a little less frequency.2 You may even enjoy superior gains in strength and size by cutting back to 3 – 4 days and ensuring you get proper rest.

Getting away from your normal workout routine can also be just the mental break you need to stay interested in your exercise regimen. Sometimes the monotony of the daily grind can get to you, and if you continue to push and push without a break, you can experience symptoms of burnout. To avoid such a condition (which can be surprisingly difficult to come back from), it’s smart to take a break now and then, just to keep the fire within and desire to work out burning strong.

Try These Active Recovery Activities

So, instead of a full-fledged all-out high-intensity workout on your active recovery days, it’s not a sin to keep burning calories, but turn down the dial a little bit. Don’t be afraid to:

  • Walk
  • Bike
  • Swim
  • Stretch
  • Do yoga
  • Play sports
  • Enjoy a light jog
  • Hike
  • Do yardwork
  • Do housework

The bottom line is to do something you enjoy and have some fun with friends and family.

Finally, don’t forget to get plenty of sleep. Sleep is the time your body normally repairs and replenishes what has been damaged during the day. This is a time of healing and rejuvenation and an important facet of a well-rounded workout regimen.