You set the alarm for 5 AM.
Workout clothes laid out.
Playlist queued up.
And you’re CONSISTENT, baby — diligently showing up for your workouts on a regular basis.
But, is your fitness routine missing this one crucial piece that helps you see faster results, keep motivation to train high, and even prevent hormonal imbalances?
What is that crucial piece, you ask?
Which I’m sure you guessed from the title, huh?
Now listen, I know it’s easy to get caught up in the endorphins that result from exercising. Endorphins make you happy (“and happy people don’t shoot their husbands!”). However slowing down and resting is an equally important part of the equation.
Why is that? Well, working out is a stress on the body. You’re literally damaging your muscle fibers with each squat, bicep curl, and bent over row you complete.
And this isn’t bad!! In fact, it’s actually necessary if you want results from your time in the gym (or home gym). The very way you get stronger and build muscle is by breaking that muscle down so that it can grow back stronger and bigger.
But, if you don’t engage in appropriate rest and recovery practices after those workouts, then the constant stress of your workouts becomes too much for your body to handle.
This can result in:
- Less progress in your workouts
- Greater risk of injury
- Nagging illness
- Hormonal imbalances
- Constant muscle fatigue and soreness
- Deteriorating health physically, mentally, and emotionally
You see, rest days are when muscles recover, rebuild, and grow stronger! Working out of course challenges your muscles, lungs, and heart, but it also challenges your nervous system, so rest days provide time for nervous system recovery as well. Finally, rest days are also when glycogen stores in your muscles can be replenished so that you can workout longer and harder without experiencing the dreadful muscle fatigue and soreness.
You can kinda picture it like picking a scab (as gross as that is). If you don’t give the scab time to rest from all that picking, it won’t heal. It continues to be inflamed, painful, and problematic.
If you’re a visual person, the chart below may be helpful for you to see how this plays out over time:
You can see that as you come up against stressors (like a hard workout), if you don’t rest and recover, then overtime that line you want to go UP actually starts going DOWN.
So, how do we keep that line trending up?? If you guessed “take rest days”….well, you’re a fast learner.
The next question might be: “okay, well how many rest days? And when should I take them? What do I do on them??” Let’s break those 3 down.
1. How many rest days should I take?
The answer to this will depend! The body is dynamic and there are numerous factors that can impact your body’s capacity to recover. There’s no right or wrong number of rest days to take, but a general rule of thumb I recommend is anywhere from one to three. Some weeks you may find yourself needing to lean on taking more rest days than other weeks — that’s fine! You should at LEAST be taking one full rest day a week. You aren’t an Energizer bunny…you have to recharge!
It’s important to note that if you’ve been training for YEARS at a high intensity and have also paired that with dieting or under-eating (or perhaps just trying to eat perfectly clean) and you’re finding yourself super burned out, anxious, and constantly fatigued, then you may benefit from taking more rest days more frequently for a few weeks or even months.
2. When should I take rest days?
You can space them out, such as taking one mid-week, and then another one or two on the weekend. You could consider taking them a day before, or after, a really hard workout. If you do a hard lower body workout on Mondays, you may want to factor in a rest day on Sunday, and perhaps a lower intensity workout on Tuesday to provide ample time for recovery.
And I’ll take this time to remind you that not every workout needs to be done at a max, all out effort. It’s wise to sprinkle in some “easier” workouts during the week instead of hitting max intensity each time.
Another thing to consider: what happens if you wake up on a day that you were planning to workout but find yourself way too sore to even think of lifting a dumbbell? “But, I wasn’t supposed to have a rest day for another two days!?!”
..that’s okay! You should ALWAYS tune into the messages your body is sending you. If you sense that deep soreness and state of fatigue — that’s a sign to take a rest day, even if it wasn’t planned.
3. What do I do during rest days?
What to DO on rest days, yeah?! In a society that is constantly pushing productivity and always being go-go-go, it is HARD to slow down. Especially in a culture where we are made to think that our worth and identity is tied up in how we look…ah! It can be so tempting to feel like we should be moving and being active all the time.
Now, regular movement IS important. I’m not saying you need to lay in the bed all day on a rest day. You should still consider adding in some stretching, mobility, light yoga, gentle walks, and fun leisure activities in most of your rest days. Not to “get in a sweat”, but to simply move your body, get blood flowing to your muscles to help promote recovery, and to provide some space for a mental break, too!
…however there may be rest days where you truly just don’t want to move…and that’s okay, too! Skipping that early morning yoga flow in lieu of more sleep is fine! Trading that post-work walk for an extra episode of your favorite show on Netflix is fine! Listen to your body.
OTHER WAYS TO PROMOTE RECOVERY
Rest days are just one piece of the recovery recipe. What else do you need to ensure you’re getting the most out of your workouts? Two main considerations:
1. Getting enough sleep
Mmmm, probably not the first time you’ve heard that recommendation, eh?! For good reason: did you know the body goes through the most dramatic process of physical repair between 10 PM and 2 AM?? What this means for you is that you wake up physically and mentally rested, which makes it easier to be motivated for those early morning workouts.
In fact, there was a study done on professional swimmers that found when they increased their sleep duration to 10 hours a night, they were able to swim a 15 meter sprint .51 seconds faster, they improved turn time by .10 seconds, increased number of kicks by 5 kicks, and reacted .15 seconds quicker off the blocks.
Maybe doesn’t sound impressive (.51 seconds?? Big deal!), but in the context of a professional athlete, every second matters.
So while you probably aren’t a pro athlete (yeah, same…), I just have to believe that if elite athletes saw these types of improvements, then what can you and I expect to experience with more sleep??
2. Consuming enough food
Here is a simple equation for you: food = energy.
And you know what requires energy?
Waking up each morning and facing the day with a positive attitude and mental clarity.
If you’re running, walking, lifting weights, literally doing anything that requires physical activity…you need more than 1200 calories.
Sure you may be able to make it on 1200 calories for some length of time, but eventually your body will let you know that it needs more. That could look like:
- Low energy
- Muscle fatigue and soreness that won’t abate
- Binging episodes
- Constant thoughts of food
- Brain fog and difficulty concentrating
- Loss of menstrual cycle
- Lack of motivation
- Low libido
If your body doesn’t get what it needs from you nourishing it, it will resort to breaking down your tissues for energy, including muscle tissue. So instead of building muscle, you’re breaking it down. This can have deleterious effects on metabolism and workout goals.
Aim for eating at least .8-1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight most days, spread evenly through the day. Pair those proteins with carbs, fat, and fiber-rich veggies and fruits. Some examples:
- Breakfast: 3 eggs, sourdough with avocado, berries; coffee with collagen
- Lunch: Deconstructed burrito bowl with ground beef, roasted potatoes, pickle, red onion, lettuce
- Snack: Sheep milk yogurt with bee pollen, dark chocolate chips, banana slices
- Dinner: Baked salmon, baked sweet potato, sautéed broccolini
Rest Day Recap
By now, you probably realize just how important of a role rest days play in your fitness routine. From here, I encourage you to audit your current weekly routine. Are you taking enough rest days? Are you prioritizing sleep? Are you eating enough? If you feel like you have some room for improvement in any one of those areas, that’s okay — each are things that are within your control. Try going to sleep 15-30 minutes earlier, trading in your 5th intense workout of the week for a lower intensity walk, eating more protein at meals, and taking a strict scheduled rest day. Guarantee you’ll feel better before, during, and after your workouts!