The Case for True Rest Over ‘Active Recovery’ (SELF)

Posted: Dec 29, 2022 in In the News

This article originally appeared in SELF on 12/29/2022.

The Case for True Rest Over ‘Active Recovery’

Yes, there’s a difference. And it’s an important one.
I used to identify as one of those runners. You know them. The ones who say they take a day “off” every week only to replace their regular run with a whole different routine, whether it’s hopping on an elliptical, cycling indoors, swimming the open ocean, or scaling a mountain.
My friends, that is not a rest day. That is a cross-training day. And there’s a big difference. At some point “no days off” became shorthand for dedication. A celebrated mantra in the fitness world that glorified one’s ability to “show up” regardless of the physical cost. But there’s a price to pay for this habit, as “no days off” practitioners find out sooner or later: injuries, followed by setbacks and frustration.

That’s led to a more recent trend: active recovery. This term has popped up as a way to combat the “no days off” mentality—a way for athletes to work some “rest” into their routine by, well, doing another routine. Okay, so you’re not running five miles, but you’re spending the same amount of time hiking or going to yoga or “briskly” walking. 

But really, where is the rest in that? What’s wrong with just one day that doesn’t include dedicated physical activity? 


To be clear, there’s certainly nothing wrong with active recovery—those less-intense exercises we mentioned above like yoga, light cycling, walking, or mobility work to supplement primary workouts. Light activities slightly elevate the heart rate and provide some movement, which brings a whole slew of benefits, such as promoting blood flow and helping repair tiny tears in muscles. So, yes, days devoted to this kind of movement are an important part of a well-rounded training schedule. But active rest days shouldn’t come at the cost of actual rest. Yes, your body can likely benefit from active recovery, but you also need complete rest apart from it.

So please, for the sake of your tired body and exhausted mind, I’m begging you to bring back the true rest day. A 24-hour period during which you have permission to do nothing. A time when you eliminate any reason to don spandex or synthetic sweat-resistant apparel. A day when the most physically taxing thing you do is meet a friend for coffee or read a good book.

I grew up a year-round competitive swimmer who transitioned to marathons in my 20s, putting in up to 70 miles a week and hitting a PR of 3:19. So while I have the exercise background to support what I’m saying above, I’m definitely not the only one doing so: According to the American Council on Exercise, even dedicated recreational athletes need rest days once a week to 10 days. These glorious respites from the gym (or track, trail, court, field) help you avoid a host of bad outcomes, like injuries, illness, and burnout. Yet many athletes find it difficult to consistently schedule honest breaks into their routines. Some fear that they’ll lose the fitness or the habit they’ve worked so hard to achieve. Others crave that daily endorphin rush. And some just falsely conflate days off and laziness. I personally identified with all of these “excuses” at least once. 

Why do I feel so strongly about this? I’m a living example of what happens when you don’t schedule actual rest into your routine: If your body doesn’t crumble first, your mind will. 

For years—decades, actually—I approached my marathon training with discipline, determination, and vigor. I thrived. I met many goals I set for myself, like qualifying for the Boston Marathon. But then I broke. Literally: I broke my ankle while training for a six-day, 120-mile stage race that traversed the Colorado Rockies. 

And just like that, I was out. What followed was a six-month period of forced rest. The pain lingered for at least three months, then it took another three to complete physical therapy to make sure it was strong enough to hold up on the trails once again. This rest was eye-opening to me. Taking it easy after so many years of intensity showed me just how much I needed to lay off and recalibrate my priorities. I made room for other activities I enjoyed, such as Friday night happy hours with my friends or easy hikes with my dog. 

After my ankle healed and I was physically cleared to run, I struggled to get my mind back into training. In fact, over the course of the past four years, I tried to get back into my running routine a few times. Each time I failed, because I couldn’t sustain any consistency. What I realized after all the starts and stops was that approaching running with the same intensity wasn’t working anymore. I no longer wanted to put the same single-minded time and focus into it, but I didn’t know any other way.

My friends and coaches suggested I schedule adequate down days to keep my mind more engaged and my body healthy. I have to say, wrapping my head around “less is more” was a gradual process that has truly taken years. But now, I take one rest day a week—two if stress is high in other parts of my life—and it’s helped me realize that running is something I want to do, something that adds value to my life instead of causing additional anxiety. It takes a mind shift and confidence to accept breaks as part of a training schedule, but here are six reasons why I have embraced total, complete rest days.

Read the full article here.

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