Do you feel guilty when you take a day off from exercise? You shouldn’t. Recovery days are an important part of any fitness program. When you use them wisely they can help you achieve greater fitness gains while avoiding the problem of overtraining and burnout. Here’s what you should know about recovery days – why they’re important and whether you should do a lighter workout or take the day off entirely.
What is a Recovery Day?
As you might expect, recovery days are days where you give your muscles AND your brain a break from intense training. There are two types of recovery days – active or passive. On a passive recovery day, you might choose to completely relax and do no structured exercise at all or you might turn it into an active recovery day and do a low-intensity workout like walking, leisurely cycling, stretching, swimming, tai-chi or yoga. Which option you choose will depend on your level of fatigue and your psychological state, whether you’re burned out mentally as well as physically. Sometimes you need a day where you do absolutely nothing. At other times, you might still want to move but want to avoid doing anything intense. Each type of recovery day has its merits.
Why Are Recovery Days Important?
Exercise training puts your body under considerable stress. Of course, you need that stress for muscles to grow and for adaptations to take place that increase strength and endurance. Exercise is the stimulus that sets the adaptation process in motion, but most of the change occurs during the time between workouts as your muscles repair. Your body needs downtime for proper adaptation to take place. That’s why you shouldn’t strength-train the same muscles two days in a row.
But there’s another kind of recovery day. These are days where you put aside high-intensity exercise entirely and give your body a rest. On those days, you might do a low-intensity workout, an active recovery, or rest completely. Taking a recovery day one or more days a week has other benefits. When you give your body a break, you’ll be geared up physiologically to work harder when you next work out. Not giving yourself a recovery day to relax or do a low-intensity exercise can lead to the overtraining syndrome that may take a week or more of rest for complete recovery.
Overtraining is not the same as exercise burnout where you simply feel tired and unmotivated. Overtraining is a more severe form of exhaustion that doesn’t improve with one or two days of recovery. It involves nervous system changes and changes in hormones and neurotransmitters that take a longer period of recovery time to reverse. Plus, overtraining suppresses your immune system, putting you at risk for infections that can take you out of commission for longer than a day. Taking a recovery day at least once a week helps to prevent this more severe form of fatigue and exhaustion that may require a week or more of rest. With regular recovery days, you shouldn’t reach this point.
What Should You Do on a Recovery Day?
If you’re feeling fatigued and mentally burned out, you might choose to take the day off entirely rather than do an active recovery day. Otherwise, you might feel better doing a low-intensity workout. Why not use the opportunity to slip a yoga DVD, like my Yoga Relax, into your DVD player and work on balance and flexibility? It’s also a chance to get outdoors and walk, hike or cycle at a leisurely pace. The key is to train light on a recovery day or not train at all.
Some people psychologically feel better when they do low-intensity exercise on recovery days rather than doing nothing at all. If you’re experiencing more psychological fatigue than muscle fatigue, a low-intensity workout like yoga will keep your muscles active and the blood coursing through your vessels while giving your mind a rest. Be sure to vary your workouts regularly to avoid mental staleness. Recovery days also give you the opportunity to work on flexibility and balance. Too often people ignore these aspects of their fitness program and both decline with age.
It’s important to listen to your body. Some people need only one recovery day every week while others need more, and there may be times when you need to throw in an extra one. The best way to stay in tune with what your body is telling you is to keep an active fitness journal detailing your workouts and how you feel after each one. Only you know how often you need a rest or recovery day.
Sometimes You Need an Unplanned Recovery Day
If you’re ill or feeling more sore than usual, you might need an unplanned recovery day. Some people try to work out even when they’re ill or injured. Always think of the long-term picture. Pushing yourself when your body is in a weakened state can prolong an illness or injury. Missing a day or two is a lot smarter than turning a minor illness or injury into a more prolonged one.
The Bottom Line?
Don’t underestimate the importance of a recovery day. If you work out, you need them. If you listen to your body, you’ll know when it’s time.
International Journal of Sports Medicine 32 (5): 338–43.