Active Recovery Days vs Rest Days: What’s the Difference?


Rest and recovery are just as important as training, whether you’re a weekend warrior or a competitive athlete.

In fact, you can train as hard and smart as you want, but if you’re not paying equal attention to your recovery, you’ll never perform at your best.

Most runners understand that rest is important. Perhaps you already make an effort to take a day off at least once a week, foam roll when you’ve had a hard run, and warm up and cool down properly.

But do you know the difference between active recovery days vs rest days? The two are often used interchangeably in the fitness world, but there is a difference.

Understanding and incorporating them both into your training routine can make a huge difference to your performance and your fitness level.

Here’s all you need to know about how to incorporate both into your training routine to reap the benefits!

What is the Difference Between Active Recovery and Rest?

Rest is doing nothing physical at all on the day.

Of course, you’ll still have to do your normal daily activities like walking around at work, moving around the house, shopping, cooking, or other everyday things like that. But you shouldn’t be doing any exercise or activity that raises your heart rate!

Active recovery is doing light, low-intensity physical activity to help the body return to a better, more refreshed state.

This should be something different from what you usually do, like a walk, yoga, dynamic stretching, a relaxing swim, or even some vigorous yard work or building. Something along those lines.

As you can see, there’s quite a difference between these two types of rest! Both are aimed at giving the body a bit of a break, but the mechanisms behind them are somewhat different.

Let’s take a look at each one in more detail so you can figure out how to incorporate each one into your weekly routine for the best results!

Active Recovery

As mentioned, on an active recovery day you should be participating in some form of low-intensity, easy cross-training.

Here’s why active recovery days are important and necessary!

What Happens In Your Body?

When you do light physical activity that’s not very taxing on the muscles and the cardiovascular system, it’s an excellent opportunity for increased blood flow and oxygen to your recovering muscles.

As blood flow is increased throughout the body with low-intensity activity, the muscles receive much-needed oxygen and nutrients. This is extremely helpful for recovery and gives the muscles the time and space to heal.

As you run (or do other exercise), the muscle fibers actually break down and develop micro-tears. This is why you feel sore and stiff the day after a hectic workout. This pain is called DOMS, short for delayed onset muscle soreness.

Active recovery helps to prevent a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles, which is responsible for that soreness. It also helps to eliminate toxins much quicker.

Your muscles actually heal in between exercise sessions. While much of the healing happens during sleep, you can help accelerate the process while you’re awake, too, by participating in active recovery activities.

In summary, when you do active recovery:

  • The muscles get a break
  • Blood flow is improved
  • Oxygen is increased in muscles
  • Nutrients increase in muscles
  • Muscle healing begins!

What to Do On Active Recovery Days

You shouldn’t be doing the same activity you do on your other days. For example, if running is your main form of exercise, your active rest day should not include it.

In the same vein, if you do heavy weightlifting or intense cross-training on your alternate days, you should also avoid that on your active recovery day.

A bit of low-intensity, different activity on your non-running day is ideal. You should aim to keep your heart rate below 130 beats per minute, so any kind of physical activity that fits into that range would be perfect.

The best type of exercise to do on your active recovery day is something you enjoy! Here are some ideas for activities on your active rest day:

  • Go for a moderately-paced walk
  • Do some gentle yoga poses
  • Have a relaxed swim
  • Go for a light, slow cycle
  • Do a bit of yard work
  • A recovery run
  • Get some home maintenance done

How Often Should You Have Active Recovery Days?

You can actually add as many active recovery days to your week as you can fit in. The trick is to try not to exercise the same muscle group two days in a row, which will give it space to heal.

Technically, if you’re running, you’re going to be hitting the same muscle groups every time. If you’re following some kind of training program, chances are you have three to five days a week with different kinds of runs.

If you can have an active recovery day in between each running day, that’s ideal. You can do some form of cross-training that gives the leg muscles a bit of a break, and still get a good exercise in.

Rest Day

Rest days should include no exercise whatsoever.

That includes things like walks, physical yard work, or other activities that raise the heart rate above 120 or 130 beats per minute.

What Happens In Your Body?

When you spend a day just resting, your muscles get a well-deserved and much-needed break from their usual tearing and straining!

This gives the body space for the “fight or flight” response to simmer down and the parasympathetic nervous system to take over. This is the calming response, so your heart rate lowers, your blood pressure eases up, and your cortisol (stress hormone) levels decrease.

When your body has less stress hormone, a higher level of relaxation, and is replenishing calories and carbohydrates without depleting them on exercise, it creates the perfect environment for muscles to heal and get stronger.

It’s important to note that you need to be careful with your nutrition on rest days. For many, it can be easy to fall into bad or lazy eating habits on the days you don’t exercise.

But if you want your body to truly benefit from the rest day, you need to feed it well too. Choose healthy, wholesome carbs like rice or pasta, plenty of vegetables, fruits, and high-quality lean proteins.

There’s nothing wrong with having a treat on these days, but providing your body with at least 80% wholesome nutrients will give it the highest chance of a good, speedy recovery.

You can also supplement with recovery drinks and electrolyte tablets to make sure your body is getting all it needs to recover.

What to Do On Rest Days

We know… It can be super hard to restrain yourself from getting that heart pumping on your rest days! But if you want to reap the benefits, it’s essential that you truly avoid exercise on this day.

Even taking a light walk on a rest day turns it into an active recovery day instead. If this is what you’re doing, your body is never getting a chance to truly rest, and that cortisol level won’t come down to really allow you the space to bounce back.

Take note that you don’t need to feel tired for a rest day to be a good idea. The idea is to give yourself the rest before you feel that you need it so that you never reach the point of overtraining.

Here are some options for things to do on your rest day:

  • Catch up on your favorite Netflix show
  • Sleep in or go to bed early
  • Take a nap!
  • Read a book
  • Spend time with family and friends
  • Cook a healthy meal

Be smart about it. Obviously, if your mother asks you to come and help her plant flowers or your grandmother asks you to pop out to the store for her, don’t refuse on account of your rest day!

Just relax, try to do as little physical activity as possible, and allow yourself to chill out. As long as you’re doing a lot less than usual and keeping that heart rate to a minimum, your rest day will be perfectly okay.

How Often Should I Have Rest Days?

You should be taking at least one full rest day per week. That means no cross-training, no physical activity, nothing that gets your heart rate going. Try to avoid even getting a fright!

If you’re a beginner, you may need 2 to 3 rest days per week until your body can handle exercising more and resting less.

Which Type of Rest/Recovery Should I Use?

Both! You should incorporate at least one full rest day and as many active recovery days as you feel you need per week.

This offers you the best of both worlds and gives your body the best chance of healthy recovery. If you have an intense running schedule or you’re training for a race, you can down it to at least one rest day and one active recovery day each week.

Don’t neglect rest and recovery though! Although it may be extremely tempting to push yourself to train 6 or 7 days a week, you will eventually burn out.

When you burn out or overtrain, you’ll need a good few weeks to come back from it, so taking a couple of rest/recovery days per week is actually the best way to prevent that.

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Shanna is a writer who runs... And cycles, jumps rope, and lifts weights. She lives in beautiful South Africa and enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with other avid athletes.