We’ve all had days when we wake up and feel too beat up for another sweat-sesh. Our muscles ache, our joints are crying, our limbs are stiff, and while the thought of throwing around heavy shit still feels empowering, touching a barbell or dumbbell is the last thing on our minds. Our bodies are telling us we need to take a day off, and a past littered with preventable injuries has taught us that we’d be silly not to listen. But there’s a lotta mixed messages: do we rest or do we recover and what the heck is the difference between the two?
First things first: our bodies need both rest and recovery to get stronger; if done correctly rest days and active recovery days can help us achieve our fitness goals.
Rest days are generally categorized as days devoted to relaxation, sleep, and zero training or exercise. When we think about rest days, we often think about those lazy days after leg-day: lounging arounding watching trashy TV, eating entire boxes of girl scout cookies, and walking around the house with greasy hair and no pants. And truthfully, that’s not far off. Rest days should be devoted to relaxing (mentally and physically), meditating, sleeping in, spending time with our family, getting some errands done around the house, and maybe even meal-prepping for the week ahead. If you’ve pushed through the pain for a few days now, can’t remember the last time you took a solid rest day, and feel ill from the neck down, it’s time netflix and chill. If you’re able to incorporate some light stretching into your tv marathoning, you’ll avoid the possible consequence of feeling even more tight after a day of literally no movement. That’s where active recovery comes in.
Active recovery has become all the rage in the fitness industry in the last few months as wellness and self-love have taken center stage on health instagrams everywhere. Suddenly, fitspirational social stars are reminding us that taking rest and recovery days are just as important as slaying at the gym and meal prepping like a boss. A recovery day does not mean 24-hours of sitting our asses while watching reruns of Friday Night Lights while drinking boxed wine in our undies, rather it refers to actions and techniques that are taken to maximize our bodies repair. So, before parking your ass on the couch, know this: being strategic about your day off will make the hours you’ve put in at the gym do over-time work. Yep, that’s right. Prioritizing active recovery on our out of the box (or weight room) days can help with our muscle-gaining fat-blasting goals.
How we incorporate active recovery into our fitness regime depends on our goals, as well as the intensity of the exercise we’re doing on a sweat day. Yet, active recovery is not just about our muscles, it’s about rebooting our central nervous system, hormone balances, and mental state. Which is why I consulted with a meditation specialist, nutritionist, and physical therapist and strength and condition coach to come up with The Musts for a perfect recovery day.
When you train you are essentially causing trauma to your body; every time you exercise you are creating micro-tears in your muscles, which grow back stronger when they repair. Without proper rest, there is not enough time for the muscles to grow back stronger. Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach Dr. Grayson Wickhman PT, DTD, CSCS, says that basically, active recovery should be gentle enough to prevent you from further tearing the muscle fibers that were torn during your last few days of exercise, but also “active” enough to get the blood pumping, which brings oxygen and nutrients to the targeted area and helps the body recover (hence the nomenclature “recovery day”).
That can be anything from going for a walk to doing light yoga or taking a chill bike ride—the key is to get up and moving. According to Wickham there are two non negotiable rules when it comes to active recovery, “1) get out there and move and 2. Have FUN! Because while active recovery can be taken seriously, we are really stepping down the intensity mentally and physically”. For weightlifters and CrossFitters, Wickham recommends cardio done at 30% of our normal intensity for for a very short period of time of 8-30 minutes.
Wickham says that in addition to some light cardio, (or if necessary, in place of), mobility and stretching work should be on a recovery day agenda because not only does stretching help get the blood pumping, it also helps reduce injury. And a major perk is that this kind of activity is that it can actual make workouts even more effective… consider this kind of active recovery the fitness rule you don’t want to break.
WORK ON FORM
Skill-specific work at low-intensity is another must for an active recovery day, especially for athletes aiming to compete at a high level says Wickham. For example, he says, a CrossFit athlete can work on form using either PVC pipe or empty barbell, while a soccer player might want to work on skill work in a fun or playful setting. Working on form higher-skill moves can reduce the anxiety surrounding the moves while also activation muscle memorization.
USE THE SAUNA
Wickham finished by remarking that studies have shown that saunas increase growth hormone in a 2-6 hour window post usage, which is significant enough. The reason this is a smart tool to implement into active recovery day is that growth hormone aids in tissue repair and muscle repair. “Saunas use is generally healthy for everyone, except for those with cardiac issues. Plus, prior to common believe, you don’t need a whole lot of preparation, just make sure that you are hydrated and listen to your body”. Wickham says he likes to use the sauna until it increases his heart rate and while he is in there he takes the time to focus on his breathing.
Active recovery is a time to relax, repair, and rejuvenate, and meditation can help with all three, which is why meditation is an asset to any recovery day. Meditation is an exercise meant to calm anxiety, allow for the opportunity to be mindful of one’s presence, and nurture a healthy relationship with the body. According to Chandresh Bhardwaj, owner of Break The Norms– a non-profit organization dedicated to creating meditation communities-“Athletes tend to go rough on their bodies, and meditation can help them understand the relationship between physical exertion and mental awareness. When you have a better connection with your awareness, you’ll have a better connection with your body, too”. Bhardwaj emphasizes that fitness isn’t just defined by what we eat or how we train, rather it’s also defined by how mindful we are with our bodies and how we cope during a particularly mentally taxing workout.
Meditation is particularly beneficial for athletes, says Bhardwaj, which is why athletes who meditate regularly can expect to see benefits such as increased focus, reduced anxiety, increased ability to cope with painful injuries, decreased mind-chatter associated with failure and increased humbleness surrounding physical feats and wins, better sleep, and less impulsive reactions. Bhardwaj encourages his students to meditate for 24 minutes a day, one minute for each of of the day, but says we should to begin humbly and work our way up.
For athletes who are new to meditative practices, Bhardwaj says, “Make sure that your meditation practice doesn’t become a huge act of effort. The only effort needed is the effort of effortlessness. Make sense!? Allow yourself to let go, relax, and be in the present moment. There are several meditation apps available that can help with this. I recommend my app, Break the Norms, which has free guided-meditation audio tracks, with more added often”. The mental part of active recovery is often overlooked by athletes, by adding in meditation you will help your mind heal and increase the connection between your mind and the body. Plus, the app is free, so what’s the harm in giving it a try?
Recovery days don’t equate to “cheat meal” or free-for-all food day. In fact, Jonathan Valdez, M.B.A., R.D.N., C.D.N says that athletes should eat the same or less on recovery days. “Generally speaking, someone who is casually riding a bicycle or walking for an hour or less will need to consume less calories and carbohydrates than someone lifting weights for 60 plus minutes” says Valdez. If we follow Wickhams advice of light cardio for less than 30 minutes our bodies simply won’t need or crave the amount of fuel we feed them on lifting days.
Valdez emphasizes that hydration is key, “Your body uses water in a myriad of ways such as ridding waste from the body, fueling the metabolism, and regulating pH and body temperature which means that hydration, hydration, hydration is nonnegotiable”. He also suggests fruit smoothies, which depending on the recipe can have vitamins, antioxidants, and aid in recovery. “My athletes love love love fruit smoothies on recovery day because they’re easy, refreshing, and can pack a powerful antioxidant punch. Fruits such as strawberries and kiwi which are high in vitamin C and B-complexes, and antioxidants. Plus, with a greek yogurt base will help you you get your protein, which is essentially for rebuilding muscles torn from working out the day before”. If you’re not a smoothie person, Valdez recommends focusing on protein-based meals like salmon or chicken stir-fry. He says, “On recovery days I would focus your meals around protein (more so than carbohydrates). Aim for 25-30 grams of protein per meal plus snacks containing at least 10-15 grams of protein”.
The takeaway? Drink water, eat fruits and veggies high in antioxidants, and don’t skimp on the protein.
For those of us who typically prioritize our workouts, a rest or recovery day can become something we avoid. But we needed to remember this: rest and recovery days won’t derail our fitness goals. Furthermore, “active recovery if executed correctly can be done on any day that you’re not training. Active recovery days can replace rest days completely” say Wickham. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to take a couple rest day if we need it either physically or mentally. If we’re injured or just mentally feel underwhelmed by the prospect of going on a short 2-3 mile jog or engaging in a yoga practice that’s okay. Sometimes we need to prioritize our best friends wedding shower or a trip to PetCo over a short bike ride through Central Park.
The goal is to enjoy out life, and our health, wellness, and fitness practices should only enhance our enjoyment, not detract from it.