5 rules for rest days

To function at your highest level during activity, recovery days should be neither overly lazy nor overly ambitious, but something in the middle, says Liza Elmstrom, Tier X coach at Chestnut Hill in Newton, Massachusetts.

“Off” days—where you lounge for hours and forgo your usual focus on nutrition—can compromise circulation, make you stiff and sore, and even reverse progress. “Rest should not be synonymous with doing nothing,” notes Mark Safer, New York City-based national manager of programming at Equinox.  

On the other hand, if you feel as though you can only do one more rep, whether lifting or sprinting, it’s too much for a recovery workout, he adds. Repeated, maximal efforts will eventually catch up with you, so resist the urge to push hard on days you’re meant to give your body a break.

Here, five ways to get your rest day just right.

Hit the ideal RPE.

In terms of your rate of perceived exertion (RPE), aim for a five on a scale of one to 10. Your workout should be easy enough that you could hold a steady conversation from start to finish, Elmstrom says.

If you’ve had a few light training sessions in a row, try a low-intensity run lasting at least 30 minutes. “You’ll raise your heart rate without tiring your body too much,” Elmstrom says. If you’re bouncing back from tougher routines, fit in a brisk walk or yoga. You may sweat, but the goal isn’t to tax your system. With strength work, leave 4 to 5 reps in the tank.

Be conscious of your breath.

If you can't catch enough air without opening your mouth, dial it back. You should be able to breathe in and out of your nose throughout the workout, a sign that your cardiovascular system isn’t fighting too hard, Safer says.

Do something completely different.

It's okay for distance runners to log some easy miles on rest days, for lifters to do a lighter strength routine. But ideally, you'd consider something unique from your typical: yoga if you’re a runner, cardio if you’re strength-focused. Doing more of the same during recovery, even if at a lower intensity, doesn’t allow your body to benefit from other types of exercise that complement your go-to form of fitness, Elmstrom says.

Foam roll—mindfully.

This practice is usually a given. It loosens tight muscles, promotes flexibility, and eases inflammation, Elmstrom says. You don’t necessarily need to roll the muscles you worked the previous day, especially if they’re achey. Instead, target the surrounding muscles to increase mobility.

Develop new skills.

This is a good time to focus on building fitness in subtle ways that have big payoffs. For mobility, Elmstrom suggests bodyweight exercises that emphasize full ranges of motion at slow tempos. Try squats and TRX cross-body mountain climbers, moving at a deliberate pace.

Weave in moves that develop proprioception and body awareness such as Downward Dog to plank, TRX roll-outs, and ViPR thread-the-needles. And stretch a little farther than you think you can (during wall slides, for example), even if it’s just a half inch, to gain flexibility. For all the exercises mentioned above, aim for 3 sets of 15 reps, on each side if necessary.