Rest Day v. Active Recovery Day

As you roll over in bed to press the snooze button on your alarm, a quiet groan escapes from your lips. Every muscle in your body hurts, even muscles you didn’t know existed, and you think to yourself, ‘What did I do?’ You do a quick review of the past week’s worth of workouts and quickly realize that you haven’t had a day off for a couple of weeks. It hits you: ‘maybe it’s time to take a rest day’. 

It can often be difficult for athletes to convince themselves that they need to take a day off every once in a while. Sometimes taking a rest day makes them feel like they are going to get behind their peers training-wise or maybe taking a rest day is difficult because you feel sluggish or lethargic the day after when you come back to the gym. Whatever the reason, it’s important to give your body rest, whether that’s with a complete rest day or through an active recovery day. In order to decide which one is best for your body, let’s take a look at what these two different recovery days look like and their benefits.

Taking a rest day does not mean that you have to sit on your butt all day and remain immobile. This is actually a common misconception about rest days: you have to act like a couch potato. This is not the case. When taking a rest day, you can still participate in your normal, daily activities such as going grocery shopping, cooking in the kitchen, etc., but you should avoid doing more rigorous activities like yard work, cleaning the house, etc. The objective of a rest day is to boost mental and physical recharging. This occurs when you provide your body with enough time to rebuild and replace what’s been lost throughout the week – muscles, fluids, mentality, etc. During your rest days, you should place more emphasis on sleep, which is extremely important to the recovery process. Getting a couple extra hours of sleep and reducing one’s activity level can go a long way to keeping the body, and mind, healthy.

An active recovery day differs from a rest day in that it does involve some sort of physical exertion outside of your regular day-to-day activities. Active recovery is anything low-intensity that still causes you to break a sweat, but doesn’t leave you collapsed on the floor gasping for air. Active recovery activities should leave you feeling better than you did before and ready to tackle the next day’s workout. Therefore, avoid anything that will ramp up your heart rate or leave you with aching muscles. Some possible activities include: taking a long walk, going for a slow jog, or riding your bike. 

So, how often should you take a rest day and/or active recovery day? It is best to try to schedule at least one active recovery day and one rest day per week. A common weekly schedule followed by many elite CrossFitters is to hit their workouts hard Monday-Wednesday, take an active recovery day on Thursday, hit their workouts hard again on Friday and Saturday, and then take a full rest day on Sunday. Of course, this depends on your schedule, but it gives your body time to recover after several days of intense training so that you can finish out the rest of the week strong.