Why You Need Rest and Recovery After Exercise

Man catching his breathe after a run

Verywell / Ryan Kelly

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Most athletes know that getting enough rest after exercise is essential to high-level performance. But many still feel guilty when they take a day off. One way to help relieve this guilt is to understand the many benefits that a rest day has to offer.

For instance, rest is physically necessary for the muscles to repair, rebuild, and strengthen. For recreational athletes, building in rest days and engaging in active recovery can help maintain a better balance between home, work, and fitness goals. The optimal rest time is between 48-72 hours for the muscles that were worked.

Benefits of a Rest Day

Rest days are critical for athletes at all levels. Getting adequate rest has both physiological and psychological benefits.

Promotes Muscle Recovery

Exercise depletes the body's energy stores, or muscle glycogen. It also causes muscle tissue to break down. Giving adequate muscle recovery time allows the body to "fix" both of these issues, replenishing energy stores and repairing damaged tissues.

If you don't allow sufficient time off to replenish your glycogen stores and give your muscles time to recover from damage, performance will be compromised. Further disregard of replenishment can lead to sustained muscle soreness and pain.

Helps Overcome Adaptation

The principle of adaptation states that when we undergo the stress of physical exercise, our body adapts and becomes more efficient. It’s just like learning any new skill. At first, it’s difficult, but over time it becomes second nature. Once you adapt to a given stress, you require additional stress to continue to make progress.

But there are limits to how much stress the body can tolerate before it breaks down and suffers injury. Doing too much work too quickly will result in injury or muscle damage. Doing too little too slowly will not result in any improvement. This is why personal trainers set up specific programs that increase time and intensity at a planned rate and allow rest days.

Prevents Overtraining

Too little rest and too few recovery days can lead to overtraining syndrome. This condition is thought to affect roughly 60% of elite athletes and 30% of non-elite endurance athletes. And once you have it, it can be difficult to recover.

The consequences of overtraining are many. Research has found that it can increase your body fat, raise your risk of dehydration, lower your libido, and worsen your mood.

Promotes Relaxation

Taking a rest day also gives your mind and body a break, and it keeps your schedule from becoming too crowded. Use your free day to spend more time with family and friends. Take your normal exercise time slot and do a hobby instead.

Creating a healthy life is all about balance. It involves finding a way to split your time between home, work, and your fitness routine. Taking a rest day allows you to tend to these other areas while giving your body the time it needs to fully recover from your exercise sessions.

What Is Short-Term Recovery?

Short-term recovery occurs in the hours immediately after intense exercise. It might include doing low-intensity exercise during the cool-down phase of your workout, which is linked to performance benefits. It may also involve consuming the right foods and drinks in a post-exercise meal, replenishing your glycogen or muscle stores and fluids while optimizing protein synthesis.

What to Do on a Rest Day

There are two types of recovery you can do on a rest day: passive recovery and active recovery. Passive recovery involves taking the day entirely off from exercise. Active recovery is when you engage in a low-intensity exercise, placing minimal stress on the body, if any.

During active recovery, the body works to repair soft tissue (muscles, tendons, and ligaments). Active recovery improves blood circulation that helps with the removal of waste products from muscle breakdown that build up as a result of exercise. Then fresh blood can come in to bring nutrients that help repair and rebuild the muscles. Examples of active recovery exercises include walking, stretching, and yoga.

Sleep is also important. Make sure to get plenty of rest, especially if you are training hard. Even one or two nights of poor sleep can decrease performance for long bouts of exercises, but not peak performance. However, consistent, inadequate sleep can result in hormone level changes, particularly those related to stress, stress hormones, muscle recovery, muscle building, and worst of all performance.

Research indicates that sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), decreased activity of human growth hormone (which is important for tissue repair), and decreased glycogen synthesis.

When to Take a Rest Day

The number of rest days you need will vary based on the type and intensity of your exercise. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) suggests that, in general, you should schedule a rest day every seven to 10 days if you engage in high-intensity physical activity.

Some workout schedules incorporate rest days more often, such as twice a week. One of these days may be used as a passive recovery day, giving you the day off from exercise completely. The other could focus on active recovery, or doing a light-intensity exercise.

If you follow a seasonal training program, it may include recovery days and even recovery weeks. This is called periodization and requires that you change training programs throughout the year, adding cross-training, modifying workout types, and changing exercise intensity, time, and distance.

Signs You Need a Rest Day

Regardless of your exercise schedule, it's important to listen to your body. It will tell you if it needs a rest day, even if it's a day where you are supposed to be working out instead.

One study surveyed 605 competitive athletes to ask about signs they needed a rest day. The most commonly reported signs of overtraining included general feelings of fatigue, an unexplained decrease in performance (generally lasting between one week and one month), and musculoskeletal aches and pains.

If you feel agitated, moody, have a hard time sleeping, lose your appetite, or feel depressed or stressed, this may also be a sign that you are pushing yourself too hard, according to ACE. High levels of stress at work or home is another reason to take a day off and give your entire body a chance to relax and recover.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I eat on a rest day?

A rest day menu that supports recovery from high-intensity exercise includes both protein (to help the muscles repair and grow) and carbohydrates (to restore the used glycogen). Working with a dietitian can help you determine how much you need of each.

If I'm alternating strength and cardio, how often should I take a rest day?

If both the strength training and cardio are high-intensity, aim for at least one rest day every seven to 10 days. Listen to your body. If it needs more rest days than that, schedule them in.

12 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.