No matter how dedicated you are to crushing it at the gym (or in spin class, the pool, or out on the track), some days you wake up and just need some rest.
Despite sore muscles and stiff limbs, many of us skimp on rest and recovery days—but they’re crucial to our progress and to maintaining the mental and physical balance that keeps an active lifestyle fun, says Grayson Wickham P.T., D.T.D., C.S.C.S., D.P.T., founder of Movement Vault.
If you work out hard most days, you probably need one active recovery day and one full-on rest day per week.
If you’ve been gritting your teeth through discomfort or general tiredness and can’t remember the last time you fully stopped moving, just take a full rest day so you can sleep in, lounge around, spend time with loved ones, or do nothing at all, says Wickham.
But if you just feel a little more stiff or sore than usual, or don’t feel up to going hard, an active recovery day may be more what you need. Instead of couching-it all day, you’ll do specific things to maximize your body’s repair after days of hard work, says David Otey, C.S.C.S., Pn1. Active recovery days support the muscle-building, fat-blasting work you do in the gym, help balance your hormones and mental state, and reboot your central nervous system.
Sounds pretty great, right? Make the most of your next active recovery day by checking a few of these mind and body-boosting activities off your to-do list:
1. Light Cardio
Every time you exercise you create micro-tears in your muscles, says Otey. Ample recovery time helps your muscles repair the damage and grow stronger.
Doing some light cardio on an active recovery day will help get your blood pumping, which transports oxygen and nutrients to your muscles, without damaging them further, he says. Whether you head out for a walk or go for a bike ride, stick to about half an hour (or less) of low-intensity exercise (about 30 to 50 percent effort), says Otey.
2. Mobility And Flexibility Work
Active recovery day is the perfect opportunity to restore and work on your range of motion and flexibility by doing yoga, taking a mobility class, or doing some low-intensity dynamic stretches (like crawling, crab walking, or inch-worming) on your own, says Otey. Not only do these practices support blood flow, but they also help reduce your risk of future injury. Yoga, especially, has been shown to improve flexibility and mobility and benefit people with muscular issues, according to research published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
If you go for yoga, stick to a beginner’s class, which will move and restore your body without taxing it too much, says Otey. (If you have a lot of experience on the mat, you may be able to get away with a more intermediate class.)
No matter what you choose to do, your goal is to move and stretch every muscle—from your neck down to your feet, and to move every joint through its full range of motion.
3. Form Practice
If you’ve been itching to try a tricky move in the gym but don’t feel comfortable trying it out with weight in hand, active recovery day is a good time to practice the movement outside the gym.
If you want to nail the Turkish get-up, for example, you can work on the movement pattern at home pressure-free. Or, you can use a PVC pipe or empty barbell to work on your form for common CrossFit® moves like the squat cleans or power snatches, says Wickham. Not only will you build the muscle memory to maintain proper form when you add weight to the moves, but you’ll also tackle any anxiety about performing the move in the gym, he says.
4. Myofascial Work
‘Myofascial work’ is really just a fancy way of saying self-massage, and you’ve probably heard of the most popular method: foam rolling. By massaging your muscles with a foam roller or a lacrosse ball (which hits hard-to-roll areas like your chest and between your shoulder blades), you help to relieve tightness, knots, and circulate nutrients and waste products in and out of your muscles, says Wickham.
While you may need longer if you’re extremely tight or sore, start by spending a minute or two massaging out each of your limbs as well as your trunk (back and chest), he suggests. When you hit a trigger point or tight spot, pause and keep massaging that spot until it starts to dissipate, Wickham says. Over time this will help decrease overall stiffness and restore the muscle’s length and mobility.
Just don’t haphazardly sit on the foam roller while catching up on Netflix, though. To get the most benefit of self-massage, you have to really apply pressure to your muscles, says Mark Barroso C.P.T.
5. Sauna Time
If you love to drip with sweat, the sauna could become a part of your favorite active recovery day rituals. “I’m a big proponent of saunas because they’re relaxing, help promote better circulation, and can actually be good for the heart,” says Wickham.
Plus, according to one study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics, sitting in the sauna for 30 minutes can increase women’s levels of human growth hormone (HGH), which helps our bodies break down fats and build muscle.
Regular sauna sessions can also help the body cope with heat better, so you can perform at higher temperatures, says Wickham.
If you have any heart issues, check with your doc before sauna-ing, but otherwise these hot boxes are generally safe, says Otey. Just make sure you’re well-hydrated before you sweat and listen to your body when it wants out. If you get super drippy, be sure to drink a big glass of water and restock on electrolytes afterward, adds Barroso. (We love BodyTech’s grape Electrolyte Fizz.)
6. Epsom Salt Bath
Not only are Epsom salt baths incredibly relaxing, but they may also help support your health and fitness goals. These soaking salts contain magnesium, and can help soothe away everyday aches and soreness.
And while your body can’t absorb magnesium through your skin like it does when you eat it (which has been shown to enhance exercise performance, keep blood pressure in check, and regulate blood sugar), there’s certainly no harm in a relaxing bath. “Vegging out in the tub is a great way to relieve muscle tension,” says Barroso.
Meditation can help you relax, repair, and rejuvenate—three things we all want to achieve on active recovery day. “Athletes tend to go rough on their bodies, and meditation can help them understand the relationship between physical exertion and mental awareness,” says meditation expert and founder of Break The Norms Chandresh Bhardwaj.
Beyond what we eat and how often we train, our fitness is also defined by how mindful we are with our bodies, he says. Athletes who meditate regularly can see benefits such as increased focus, reduced anxiety, better sleep, increased ability to cope with injury, decreased mind-chatter associated with failure, and increased humbleness after physical accomplishments and wins, says Bhardwaj.
If you’re new to meditation, Bhardwaj recommends starting with 24 minutes of the practice a day—one minute for every hour. It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be a huge effort. Instead, it should be a time in which you can allow yourself to let go, relax, and be in the present moment, he says. Downloading a meditation app—like Headspace or Break the Norms—can be a good way to start.
8. Proper Refuel
We need more calories and carbs when we spend an hour in the gym strength training or hitting intervals hard than we do when we go for a casual walk or bike ride on an active recovery day—but we still need to fuel our body and muscles for our goals, according to Jonathan Valdez, M.B.A., R.D.N., C.D.N.
That means one of our goals on active recovery day—like on our training days—is to eat ample protein. Since you don’t need as many carbs to power you through a workout, Valdez recommends focusing more on eating 25 to 30 grams of protein at eat meal, along with 10 to 15 grams at snack-time.
One of Valdez’s go-to nutritional powerhouses for athletes on recovery day: a fruit smoothie. The fruit will provide an array of vitamins and nutrients—strawberries and kiwi provide vitamin C, B vitamins, and antioxidants, for example—and using Greek yogurt as a base will pump up the protein and help muscles recover and rebuild after tough workouts, he says.
Along with protein, water is also top priority. “Your body uses water in countless ways, including flushing out waste, fueling the metabolism, and regulating pH and body temperature,” he says. So hydration, hydration, hydration is nonnegotiable.
Pin this infographic and make the most of your next active recovery day: