Active Recovery vs Rest Day

You’ve probably heard of Active Recovery, seen some Active Recovery Days programmed somewhere or saw your favorite CrossFit athletes on IG posting their Active Recovery session…but what does that mean? And should you be doing it too??

When it comes to training, there’s basically three types of “days” you’ll have scheduled:

  • Training Days
  • Active Recovery Days
  • Rest Days

A lot of people tend to blend the last two together…a rest day where they do active recovery because they saw Rich Froning doing active recovery so they assumed that was what he did on his Rest Day so that he didn’t rest and “lose his gains”.

But that isn’t quite right.

What is a Rest Day?

A Rest Day is the day(s) of the week that you choose (or life chooses for you sometimes) to not train or perform any exercises or activities. 

*Exercise = planned workouts, organized movements put together intentionally, ect.

*Physical Activity = general activities that exceed “daily life” requirements (walking around), but is not a planned workout.

We wanted to clarify those two terms because it’s important to note the differences!  A Rest Day means letting your body rest.  You’re not working out, you’re not exercising, you’re not going for a 3-mile run or spending an hour on the rower.  The goal of the Rest Day is for your body to recover from the strain and stress you’ve been putting on it (all training and exercise is a form of stress) to allow for continued progress and gains in all areas.

What is an Active Recovery Day?

An Active Recovery Day is the day(s) of the week where you complete lower-intensity and lower-volume exercises compared to your normal training session.  These exercises can sometimes be deemed “Physical Activity”…you do yard work for a few hours, you go hiking, you go mountain biking.  In general, if you do decide to partake in an Active Recovery Day, we recommend you do an activity that is different than your normal activities.  Play a sport, go for a walk outside, ect.

The goal of an Active Recovery Day is to add variety to your training or to listen to your body when training should be dialed back to address specific mobility instead of a workout.

Active Recovery is not a Rest Day.

You should not substitute an Active Recovery Day for a Rest Day.

But you can substitute an Active Recovery Day for a Training Day.

Make sure you don’t get those terms or definitions mixed up…it could cost you your continued progress in weight loss, strength building or just overall fitness!

How many Rest Days do you need?

You need at the very least, two days (one day isn’t cutting it).  Most athletes are successful with 2 weekly Rest Days. By “successful”, we mean staying healthy (no overtraining symptoms, injuries or compromised immune system) and making consistent improvements.  A general-population member just seeking overall health and consistency in their workouts may find 3-4 Rest Days is better for them to feel recovered between workouts (don’t forget that a stressful life adds to our physical-stressors from workouts too…that may require additional Rest Days!).

How many Active Recovery Days do you need?

You don’t need any.  Your workout routine can simply consist of Training Days and Rest Days in the routine that best suits your goals and your health!  Again, you need Rest Days, so don’t compromise on these days to add in Active Recovery.

If you find you feel good Training 3-days a week (any more and your body feels totally beat up, your sleep gets messed up, your appetite is suppressed or any other negative side effect), but 4 Rest Days a week has you feeling a little slow and stiff between workouts, adding in an Active Recovery Day might be beneficial!  Like we mentioned earlier, these days should be different from normal training.  If you sit on a rower or an assault bike for most workouts, don’t Actively Recover on those same machines.  Go for a walk, play some golf, or swim some laps instead.

Active Recovery can be used to substitute a Training Day when your body or mind just isn’t feeling up for the usual workout.

Listening to your body in this way and being mindful with your workout routine can be super beneficial to your overall consistency and progress!  Taking a day out of the gym to be active in a way that you enjoy (your favorite sport or hobby instead of power cleans and wallballs one day won’t ruin your progress!) can help you be ready to give your best effort on your next workout in the gym, instead of being burnt-out or worse, injured.

We also noted one key detail above to these Active Recovery Days…the activities on these days are lower-intensity and lower-volume than your current training routine. So, if you saw Rich Froning doing a 30 Minute EMOM of :10 Assault Bike Sprints for his “Active Recovery Day” that is likely lower-intensity and lower-volume than his usual training to be on the Fittest Team on Earth.  However for you, that type of workout would probably count as a full on workout!  That’s not a bad thing, we’re not all out here training to go to the CrossFit Games.  Most Games Athletes take 2 days a week for a Rest Day.  Depending on where they are in their season (because they do CrossFit as a sport not just as a means to be healthy and active), they might do 1 Rest Day and 1 Active Recovery Day (*again, for the sake of the sport, not for health).

Last Thing…

When I talk to people about this and share that even the Games Athletes take 2 Rest Days, they usually rebuttal with “well that’s because they’re training so hard and so long that they really need those 2 rest days!”.  While yeah…that’s true…they’re also Games Athletes who can manage that amount of training.  You are an athlete who is also completing the maximum amount of training you can manage…so yes, you too need at least 2 Rest Days a week!