Whether you train competitively or just to keep yourself in shape, you’re probably familiar with rest days, or days in your fitness schedule when you break from your training routine and skip exercise. Rest days are incredibly important, as they allow your body to recover. Without proper rest, your body and muscles don’t have the necessary time to rebuild and rejuvenate, which can cause some nasty side effects. “If we don’t give our body rest days, the stress will add up. Cortisol levels will become chronically elevated. [This] causes problems such as fat storage, thyroid trouble, and other hormonal issues,” says Kyra Williams, NASM-certified personal trainer and coach for USA Weightlifting and USA Powerlifting. “Not only that, but our brain actually needs to take time away from the gym or workouts to focus on other facets of life and other important issues that require our attention.”
In other words, if you never take a day off, you can easily burn out. So take your rest days. But also, make sure you’re taking them correctly. It’s easy to turn a rest day into something more and it’s not always easy to completely relax. To make sure you’re getting the most out of your rest days (and enough of them), we asked top fitness instructors to reveal the most common rest day mistakes exercisers make on their days off.
You’re still going to the gym.
So, basically, you’re skipping your rest days. As we know, rest days aren’t just great in theory—they’re essential. In fact, if you fail to take rest days, you may experience unrelenting muscle soreness, according to Rachel Straub, M.S., C.S.C.S., coauthor of Weight Training Without Injury. “Muscle soreness is a good thing in moderation. But when it gets to the point that you are taking painkillers on an ongoing basis or cannot exercise with proper form, you are setting yourself up for serious injury,” she says.
Skip the gym entirely on rest days. If you feel cooped up or bored, take a walk outside—and keep it slow and steady. Ideally, your rest days are spent in a full state of rest—think, binge-watching TV. So do try to fill your time with relaxing activities like meditating, reading, or even sleeping.
You’re replacing rest days with low-impact exercises.
Even if the majority (or all) of the exercises you perform are low intensity, you still need a rest day now and then. “Low-impact exercise can still be strenuous, depending on your level of fitness,” Straub says. “Overtraining a muscle can lead to serious injury. So don’t be too quick to dismiss the importance of rest days.”
You don’t need to be running five days a week to require a rest day. For example, if you currently do Pilates three days in a row (and perform the same exercises), it’s important to take a day off in between. Rest days also are not necessarily days to fit in lower impact activities like strength training or Vinyasa yoga. These days are for strictly chilling out and letting all your muscles relax and rebuild.
You’re abandoning your nutrition plan.
Simply sitting out a trip to the gym and resting your body is only one part of the rest day equation, according to Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., Houston-based dietitian and founder of Eat Right Fitness. Proper nutrition is key to recovery. “Be sure to load up on extra protein, especially after those intense workouts and resistance training sessions. If you are doing longer-duration workouts, like training for a half marathon or even a 10K, you may need to increase your carbohydrate intake,” he says. “This ensures your body has enough glycogen (stored carbs) to power through those long runs, rides, etc.”
Pay attention to your nutrition on rest days and maybe even look at them as an opportunity to completely refuel. If your diet has been super clean for the week, consider upping your carb intake, too. This will help fill up those depleted glycogen stores and also give your body a little bit more than protein and veggies to snack on.
On the other hand, don’t take a day off exercise as a day off everything. Cheat days, like rest days, are actually crucial for keeping us on track, but overdoing the snacking on your rest day might set you up for disaster when you’re ready to hit the gym again. Feel free to indulge a little to get your energy stores ready for upcoming workouts, but don’t make yourself sick in the process.
You’re not de-stressing.
In addition to resting physically on your day off, it’s also important to rest your mind. “Stress from work and life can creep into how well you perform,” Adams warns. On your rest day, he recommends trying to avoid activities that could cause you stress. These include checking your work emails (if you can help it) and doing chores around the house. Consider this a physical, mental, and emotional rest day. You need this reset to come back strong and healthy from every angle. If you need to, let your friends, family, and coworkers (if it’s not a workday) know about your break day ahead of time. That will minimize any temptation to focus on things besides your rest.