Prioritizing active recovery doesn't just give your body the break it deserves, it helps make tomorrow's workout even stronger.
It's usually pretty obvious when your body is begging for a rest day, but with a lot of mixed messages about what that day actually looks like—Netflix binge or restorative yoga?—it can be a lot less clear what to actually do (or not do). What if you aren't miserably sore from DOMS, but just haven't taken a day off from workouts all week and feel like you should? Is that a rest day or a recovery day—and what's the difference anyway?
First, there's no debating it: Your body needs both rest and recovery days, and together with regular strategic exercise, they are a recipe for achieving your fitness goals.
What are rest days?
Rest days are generally categorized as a day of Netflix, sleep, and zero exercise, says Fhitting Room trainer Melody Scharff, NASM CPT. If you've had a few days of mediocre workouts due to overtraining or mental fatigue, or can't remember the last time you really took a day off, you're overdue for a real rest day, says Scharff. (Still not sure this applies to you? Here are seven signs you seriously need a rest day.)
What are active recovery days?
An active recovery day, on the other hand, probably means your workout yesterday felt pretty solid and today you're sore but not in pain. These days are all about taking steps that will help your muscles recover, repair, and strengthen, says K. Aleisha Fetters, C.S.C.S., a personal trainer and fitness writer.
Before parking your booty on the couch, know this: Being strategic about your "day off" will make the hours of work you've put in at the gym work double time. Essentially, rest equals results. This is why we came up with this sample recovery day schedule, so you can make sure you're doing it right, recover like a pro, and get back to beasting your workout tomorrow.
Your Guide to the Ultimate Recovery Day
7:00 a.m.: Wake up
While there's no rule saying you need to get up at 7 a.m. on recovery days (especially if it's the weekend!), eight or more hours of sleep on either end of a recovery day is especially important because your body uses that sleep as a time to repair muscle fibers and restore energy levels, says Scharff. Plus, poor sleep contributes to excess cortisol levels. If weight loss is your goal, a high cortisol level is a bad thing because this stress hormone can contribute to hunger and cravings.
7:30 a.m.: Meditate
If you've been putting off self-care practices that you know you should be doing, but never seen to actually do, today is the perfect excuse. Active recovery is a time to relax, repair, and rejuvenate, and meditation can help with all three. "Athletes tend to go rough on their bodies, and meditation can help them understand the relationship between physical exertion and mental awareness," says meditation specialist Chandresh Bhardwaj.
Meditation has a slew of mind and body benefits, including increased focus, reduced anxiety, increased pain threshold (perfect for second-day soreness), improved sleep, and less stress, says Bhardwaj. (Learn more about these and other powerful benefits of meditation.) Get started with a guided meditation app such Headspace, or you could even turn the Amazon Alexa into your own personal zen coach.
8:30 a.m.: Eat breakfast
You should generally eat the same way you would on active exercise days, but pay more attention to protein intake and hydration, says certified yoga teacher and dietitian Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N.. Aim for a breakfast that's high in fiber to keep you full, with ample protein for muscle repair. "I recommend a bowl of oatmeal cooked with a low-fat milk, and chia seeds or nut butter, and half a sliced banana if you like it sweeter," she says.
And don't forget your BFF coffee—maybe make it your favorite chai spice latte because, recovery day. One study published in the Journal of Pain found that exercisers who drank coffee saw a 48 percent drop in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
9:30 a.m.: Move
Remember that key difference between rest and recovery: activity. Movement, which helps circulate blood and nutrients to the muscles, is so important for your body to function and recovery properly, says Fetters, although that movement should look a little different today. "Don't get hung up on having to hit 10,000 steps per day, but your steps shouldn't nosedive to 1,000 on recovery days."
So, go on a slightly longer walk with your dog. If you take the subway to work, walk to the other end of the platform. If you drive to work, park farther away. (Get going and relieve pain with this active recovery workout.)
12:30 p.m.: Have lunch
Like breakfast, lunch on an active recovery day should be high in protein. Try a salad with avocado, sweet potato, chicken, and almonds, says Gans. More options: High-Protein Vegetarian Recipes for a Satisfying Lunch
3:00 p.m.: Do some light cardio
To reiterate why recovery matters for those "gains," exercise creates micro-tears in your muscles, which grow stronger when they repair. So without proper rest, you're not giving your muscles the time they need to strengthen, says Fetters. That means that 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 to initiate repair. So how do you find that sweet spot?
"How much cardio is too much is going to depend on the person, the intensity of your other workouts, and your fitness level," she says. "This is where listening to your body and paying attention to how your recovery days fit into your individual plan is important."
Light to moderate cardio work can be anything from a brisk walk to a bike ride or a short swim, and it should be done at about 30 to 50 percent of your usual intensity, adds Fetters. And don't forget to drink lots of water.
4:00 p.m.: Foam roll
Self-myofascial release using a foam roller relieves tension from the connective tissue surrounding the muscles. Research has shown that rolling out your muscles can help reduce DOMS, increase hamstring flexibility and balance, and even improve exercise performance. Here are 10 ways to use a foam roller so you hit all your trouble spots.
7:00 p.m.: Enjoy dinner
Focus on filling your plate with whole grains, protein, and produce filled with antioxidants. Gans recommends a dish that follows a Mediterranean-style of eating—veggies, fish, whole grains, plant-based proteins, and dairy—so you can feed your body the whole-food nutrition it craves. Try incorporating any of these healthy foods that give you every nutrient you need.
And if you want to treat yourself on this recovery day, Gans says alcohol in moderation is A-OK.
8:00 p.m.: Take an Epsom salt bath
There's a lot of confusing information floating around about the benefits of Epsom salt baths, and the science just isn't there to back up the purported benefits derived from soaking in magnesium sulfate heptahydrate. Digesting magnesium has been shown to enhance exercise performance, keep blood pressure in check, and regulate blood sugar, but the jury is out about absorbing it through the skin. However, studies have found that soaking in an Epsom salt bath can help people at least feel relaxed, and there's no harm in grabbing some wine and sinking into a warm tub. Just don't make the water too hot, because that can dry you out, and hydration is crucial on active recovery days, says Fetters.
9:00 p.m.: Relax and have a snack
If you're used to having a pre-bedtime snack, consider some Greek yogurt.
"Casein protein is a great pre-bed snack because it's a slow-digesting protein and can help your muscles rebuild all night long," says Fetters. You can also find casein protein in other dairy products such as cottage cheese if Greek yogurt seems too filling shortly before bed.
As a bonus, throw some tart cherries on top of your pre-bed snack. Research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that marathoners consuming tart cherry juice had reduced muscle soreness due to antioxidant compounds in the cherries called anthocyanins that help decrease excess inflammation in the body. (P.S. Purple sweet potatoes are another fun and healthy way to up the anthocyanins in your diet.)
10:00 p.m.: Get ready for bed
Set yourself up for a good night's sleep (see above about why that's so important) and a restful morning with a calming ritual like making a cup of chamomile tea or rubbing lavender oil on your temples, says Gans. You could also do these yoga stretches to help you fall asleep faster. Whatever you choose to do to prep your body for rest, just know that you've spent the day setting up yourself and your workout for success tomorrow.