Rest, Recover, Rebuild: The Importance of Rest Days for the Athlete

Active Recovery with Yoga

How to Do a “Rest Day” The Right Way

We’ve all heard about the importance of rest days when it comes to recovering from workouts.  Some of you may know this and ignore the advice – pushing yourself until an injury forces you to take a break.  Science shows exercise is good for you.  Conditioning improves your cardiovascular health.  Strength training improves muscle tone and can actually increase longevity.  However, adequate recovery is the key factor in the effectiveness of your exercise program.  

Many people devote themselves completely to their fitness routine.  Whether you are addicted to running or doing WODs at the box, it can honestly be a little hard to stop.  But if you want to sustain a healthy lifestyle, you do need to take an occasional break.

Not all rest days are equal.  Maybe you think it means binge watching the latest Netflix original series.  Maybe you have a 10-mile hike planned as an “active” rest day.  Or perhaps you’re taking the weekend “off” from your normal workout routine to rebuild your deck.  While there are a time and place for each of these scenarios, none of these really count as a “rest day.”

Recovery After Exercise is Necessary

Perhaps you’re an athlete whose coach has nagged you for ages to take a rest day.  But you feel guilty for missing a day or maybe think you just don’t need it.  Listen up because this section is for you.  Overtraining syndrome occurs when there is an inadequate rest to work ratio.  Some of the obvious symptoms of overtraining are being prone to minor injuries such as tendinitis or persistent muscle soreness.  More subtle signs include an elevated resting heart rate and difficulty sleeping or not feeling rested after adequate sleep.  Maybe you’ve been losing weight unintentionally or have noticed you’re not as hungry as normal.  In the long run, these symptoms all lead to injury or illness and decreased performance or motivation.  

Intentional Recovery

Many take the term “rest” day a little too literally or “active” rest day too far.  Vegging out in front of the TV or a long hike with a rock ‘scramble’ have vastly different results from intentional recovery.  An athlete must take their rest days as seriously as their training days.  (And it doesn’t hurt those of us who workout “for fun” either).  Short sessions of low-intensity activity, like a few minutes on a stationary bike, can help.  A little exercise is a great way of reducing soreness and getting some blood flow to recovering muscles.  But the key word is light!  Don’t get sucked into finding your max deadlift!.

Body Work

E-stim device for sore muscles
E-stim is a useful tool to help improve blood flow to sore muscles.

So what does an intentional recovery day look like?  If you participate in a strength training regimen or functional fitness, bodywork is a must.  This can include self-myofascial release with a foam roller or lacrosse ball.  Setting up an appointment with a therapist for Graston, IASTM, dry needling, or massage therapy is an even better option.  Think of it as the evolution of stretching.  Basic stretching never really showed any benefits for injury prevention.  And some evidence shows it may decrease performance in the short-term.  But myofascial release seems to decrease injury rates.  It also doesn’t decrease your athletic performance and may actually improve your capabilities acutely.

Electric Stimulation is another option for muscle recovery.  Most physical therapy and chiropractic clinic offer this modality, but you can also invest in your own e-stim unit at home through companies such as Compex or Power Dot.  These methods help increase blood flow to the sore muscle tissues which improves healing and increases mobility.  


For most of us, it’s unrealistic to see a therapist twice a week, every week for hands-on modalities.  But we can all make time for mobility work.  My personal favorite rest day workout is Yin Yoga (as pictured in the cover photo).  This type of yoga involves holding passive poses designed to open joints.  If dropping into your local yoga studio isn’t your thing, there are many cost-effective options online to find appropriate poses.  

Moist Heat

Dr. Larson mentioned last week that moist heat is used to help reduce the effect of DOMs.  Epsom salt baths are a great way to work this in.  Heating pads work well if you don’t have time to soak for 10 minutes but many commercial products use dry heat.  You can easily make your own moist heating pad using long-grain rice, a sock (a clean one please), and peppermint or lavender oil (optional).  Simply fill the sock with rice, add a few drops of oil.  I personally prefer peppermint oil as it does ease muscle pain.  Then place the sock in the microwave along with a cup of water for 30-45 seconds.  Seriously though, don’t forget the water.  Not only does it help provide moisture, but it prevents potential fiery accidents.

Rest, Recover, Rebuild

Ultimately, you need to find out what method of recovery works best for you, your time, and your lifestyle.  Whether it’s a monthly deep tissue massage, occasional check in with a therapist, or a little RomWod during your latest binge-worthy TV show, make sure you’re dedicating some of your rest day to active recovery.  Resting can be hard work.  Your muscles will appreciate it and show their gratitude with increased performance in the gym.  Maybe your next PR is just a deload week away!


Works Cited

Stone, M.h., et al. “Overtraining: A Review of the Signs, Symptoms and Possible Causes.” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 5, no. 1, 1991, p. 35., doi:10.1519/1533-4287(1991)005<0035:oarots>;2.

“ – The Home Page of Yin Yoga.” – The Home Page of Yin Yoga,

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