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Recover, Refuel, and Rejuvenate with Active Rest

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The day after a long run or a grueling workout, all I want to do is kick back on my couch and catch up on my DVR. But in the workout world, we hear a lot about turning those days off into “active rest” days, whether we’ve been spending a lot of time at the gym or just doing too much of one particular type of exercise. But what, exactly, does this term mean? How active is active rest? And are some types of resting activities better than others, depending on the type of exercise you’re taking a break from? 


Turns out, while you may feel like being a blob after a big workout, what your body really needs is just the opposite. Rest periods help rebuild muscles and refill your energy stores. Turning your days off into days of active rest—by engaging in superlight biking, walking, swimming, and even stretching—will help you get more out of your downtime, both mentally and physically. 


Is “Active Rest” an Oxymoron?
If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “America’s Next Top Model marathon, here I come” on your rest days. Not so fast, says Heather Smith, a Los Angeles-based personal trainer who says, “Being moderately active on those off-days actually helps the body recover.” Rest and activity may seem like two very different physical states, but as far as our muscles and exercise are concerned, that isn’t exactly the case. Research shows that being moderately active on days off offers major physical advantages in terms of recovery and gaining strength (compared with a more traditional couch-potato recovery approach). When you’re training hard for a big run (or just to look good in your party dress), your body needs between one and three days off each week to recover and be even stronger when you start your next intense workout. These days are just as important as pushing yourself to the max during hard workouts—they give your muscles time to repair and rebuild themselves, and help prevent stress injuries caused by overtraining.


Here’s why: increasing your heart rate even a little bit gets blood flowing, which brings needed nutrients and oxygen to the muscles you work out so hard during your heaviest exercise days. “It also helps flush away waste products, like lactic acid, that build up following exercise in muscles,” says Smith. All you need to do to get this extra blood flow going is to mix in some low-intensity exercise following full workouts. One study, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, found that low-intensity activity actually improves blood circulation and speeds the removal of waste products.


Doing It Right
Running, swimming, yoga—whatever your workout of choice, there are some rules everyone should follow when actively resting: 


Practice active rest one to three days per week; get moving for at least twenty minutes on those days. 


“Get moving” means move at a moderate rate, or one at which you can carry on a conversation easily while doing whatever activity you choose. Technically, this means that your level of exertion should be about 65 percent of your maximum heart rate. “Doing anything more brings on the production of more lactic acid—the substance we’re trying to flush away on these days,” says Smith. You can figure out your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220; it’s also the “fat-burning zone” on most cardio machines. 


Your active-rest activity should be different from the usual type of workout you do, activating different muscles and giving your mind a break, too. If you’re a runner, like I am, Smith suggests trying a swim or just an easy walk with your dog. Light yoga can be a good choice for everyone—unless you do yoga most days, in which case you might try power walking. Other activities that’ll get you moving just the right amount include gardening, doing your errands on foot instead of driving, ice skating, and even cleaning your house vigorously for at least twenty minutes. The most important thing to remember: don’t make it an actual workout. 


Active-Rest Recommendations
Experimenting with various active-rest activities is the best way to figure out what works for your body. Smith suggests starting with these ideas, based on your usual workout of choice: 


  • Swimming: rowing
  • Biking: running or rowing
  • Running: biking or swimming
  • High-intensity aerobics (such as kickboxing): cycling, rowing, or swimming
  • Everyone: stretching 


The Bottom Line
Active rest is a powerful way to get even more out of your workouts. Keeping your body rejuvenated is extremely important—so turning an active-rest day into another full-on workout defeats the whole purpose. All it takes for your body to achieve its optimal physical and psychological recovery is a little movement and a little variety. Because when you put so much effort into getting those workouts in, you might as well get the most out of them. And one last thing, says Smith: “Don’t forget, an active-rest day doesn’t mean a day off from good nutrition.” So enjoy your downtime—walk to the farmers’ market, buy some veggies, and make yourself some warm, healthy winter soup.

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