It can be so hard to convince yourself to do a light session when you want more. Even when I’ve planned easy days, I wonder what’s wrong with running a little faster? If my body feels up to the challenge, why not go for it?
Not so fast. Easy days may not be as flashy as intervals or HIIT workouts, but they’re an essential part of recovery to help you feel fresh and rested for tougher workouts.
So why does your body need rest? You probably know that your muscles break down when you train hard, but the effect exercise has on your body is actually twofold: metabolic and mechanical.
“When we exercise, we create micro tears in our muscles,” says sports chiropractor Dr. Alex Tauberg. This is the mechanical effect on the body. “At the same time, hormones are released that play a role in the repair process. Setting up your body to optimize this repair and recovery process will help you get the most out of your training.
On the other hand, metabolic stress occurs when you burn the energy stored in your liver and muscle cells (also called glycogen). Once the glycogen is used up, the body needs time to replace it. And if you don’t let your body recover, you will see the consequences.
“Overtraining syndrome often presents as generalized fatigue,” says Dr. Tauberg of this relatively common condition. “People will feel tired, sluggish, have trouble falling or staying asleep, and possibly develop psychological issues. The body might even enter a state where it begins to use muscles as an energy source.
Yeah. I’m sure none of us want our body to break down our hard earned muscle. We know recovery is important – but what does good recovery look like?
What is the difference between rest days and easy days?
Rest days and easy days are not the same thing. A rest day is a day without exercise. You don’t need to be chained to the couch, but these days you should try to give yourself a complete physical and mental break from exercise. Instead of working out, do chores around the house, hang out with friends, spend time outdoors, or watch TV.
Easy days are a little different. Although you train on easy days, you should aim to keep the intensity low. The goal of these days is not to make big gains, it’s to help with recovery.
And yes, they can actually help you recover faster. A 2018 meta-analysis (which is a large analysis that looks at multiple studies) found that active recovery reduced DOMS. An easy day can leave you feeling fresh and ready to crush your next tough workout.
How to spend a useful and pleasant “easy day”
Make peace by taking it easy
This day is meant to be low-key, so keep that in mind as you prepare for your workout.
“Being uncomfortable with rest is very common,” says Annalicia Niemela, Pilates instructor and health coach. “When you notice you’re not comfortable with a day off, ask yourself, ‘Why?’ Then allow that questioning to illuminate some beliefs you may have about yourself or rest that may not be healthy.
Maybe you’re afraid that if you don’t train hard enough, you’ll get weak, stop progressing, or change your weight. No matter what’s bothering you when it comes to easy days, identifying the source of your worries can help you deal with them. “When we can bring awareness to these beliefs and challenge them, rest becomes less triggering and more rejuvenating,” says Niemela.
Reduce the intensity… a lot
Not sure what an easy day looks like? It doesn’t have to be complicated – you can just take one of your normal activities and reduce the intensity. It can be swimming, running, biking, yoga, or even brisk walking.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), you should aim to stay around 30-60% of your maximum heart rate. If you’re not sure what this means to you, use the ‘conversation test’. If you can hold a conversation comfortably and have no trouble catching your breath, you’re going at the right pace.
You may have noticed that they are all quite cardio-dominant. If most of your workouts focus on strength training, you’re probably wondering, what should I do?
Even though it’s hard to slow down, your muscles really need a break, especially if you’re supplementing your runs with dumbbells. Personal trainer and weightlifter Robert Herbst recommends putting the weights aside in favor of a fun activity, like an easy bike ride or a basketball game.
“If you feel like you need to do the same type of activity, set up a light, precise workout designed to aid recovery, and stick with it,” he says. “For example, if you did heavy bench presses yesterday, do light, high-rep triceps pushups.” This exercise won’t strain your muscles, but it will get your blood flowing and help you recover.
try to slow down
We can leave with the best intentions, but it can be too easy to feel good halfway through and get carried away. Suddenly you’re chasing your Strava, lungs burning, and your easy day plan is gone out the window.
That’s why certified personal trainer Matthew Scarfo recommends securing your easy day with a few simple tips. “If you’re going for a walk, make it difficult to go for a run by wearing less durable clothes or clothes that are too hot for running,” he says. Yes, that means wearing your flimsy old yoga bra so running is literally painful.
If that sounds a bit extreme, try making a firm plan by committing to a course. “That could mean signing up for a low impact or easy dance class,” Scarfo says. You can also try arranging a jogging or biking date with a friend or pre-booking a time slot at your local pool for a swim. The options are endless here: the key is to make a firm plan that you won’t want to undo.
Make stretching and mobility a priority
Your easy day doesn’t have to be all about jogging, biking, and resistance bands. In fact, it’s a great excuse to dedicate time to stretching and mobility, which will help you recover faster and avoid injury.
“A workout of foam rolling and a short 10-15 minute yoga session on your easy days is a great way for you to recover, prevent injury, refocus your mind, and move better not only for your training, but also for everyday activities,” says Melissa Rodriguez, Certified Personal Trainer. “The key is to engage in ‘active’ recovery training.”
Rodriguez recommends a combination of foam rolling, dynamic stretching, and static stretching.
“Yoga’s signature stretches can help improve your range of motion and mental toughness,” she says. “Moving through a full range of motion and isometric grips can be challenging.”
While this might be a different type of challenge than you’re used to, it should still be tricky. “Rolling and stretching the foam challenges your mindset, ranging from pushing your muscles (as you typically would for intense sessions) to listening to your muscles,” says Rodriguez.