How to Survive (and Even Embrace) Rest Days

Ah, rest days… we know we need them (or so we’ve been told), yet for some reason they are so difficult. If you’re anything like me, you probably operate under the notion that more is always better. You’ve probably had thoughts like, “why train 5 days a week when I can train 6, or even better, 7?” or, “the more I train, the stronger I’ll get!” Well, here’s the thing that took me so long to wrap my head around: training doesn’t make you stronger; recovering from training makes you stronger.

You heard me right. Without adequate recovery, over time, you won’t get stronger. In fact, if you’re overtraining and under-recovering for an extended period of time, you may even find yourself getting weaker. That’s right, training too much and recovery too little can actually inhibit your progress and make you weaker. Makes you second guess your decision to skip rest days, huh?

So you know that rest days (or as I like to call them, recovery days) are important, but that doesn’t really make it any easier to stay out of the gym for a day. So are my top tips for surviving, and even embracing, rest days:

1. Dedicate the day to being productive in any area of your life outside the gym.

My biggest struggle with rest days is feeling unproductive. So for me, rest days are my “get sh*t done” days. I have extra time and energy that I’m not spending on training, so I take advantage of that and use the day to be extra productive with my work and personal projects. It’s also the day that I get things like grocery shopping, laundry, and household chores done. I like to make a list of all the things I accomplish on a rest day so I can look back on it at the end of the day and feel extremely productive, even without having trained.

[Many athletes find soft tissue work can be really helpful on rest days — check out the best foam roller for your needs!]

2. Focus on training your brain instead of your body.

Since I can’t physically train on rest days, I use the day to mentally train, or in other words, educate myself more about training. This means reading articles (mainly from BarBend, of course), watching videos (Juggernaut and Starting Strength have some great ones), listening to podcasts (check out The Body of Knowledge), and the like—all having to do with fitness and strength training. Fitness is my biggest passion and I still want to immerse myself in it even when I’m giving my body time to recover, and this allows me to do just that! Plus, when I do get back in the gym, I’m all the more knowledgeable and able to train smarter.

3. Practice mindfulness.

Oftentimes on training days, I’m so focused on the goal in front of me that I forget to slow down and really listen to my body. I’m usually more pressed for time on training days, so slowing down isn’t really an option. Rest days allow me to take a step back and check in with how my body and mind are doing. I make a point to be extra mindful when engaging in my daily activities on rest days and to do everything with intent and purpose.

4. Eat foods you enjoy, and take extra time to prepare them.

On days that I’m in the gym, food serves as fuel to get through my workout and perform at my best. When I get home from a hard training session, the last thing I want to do is spend time cooking and preparing a meal.

On rest days, food is something I make an extra effort to enjoy and appreciate. This means taking extra time to prepare meals instead of eating pre-prepped foods, sitting down for meals instead of eating on the go, and really enjoying my food instead of just getting it in.

5. Go outside and enjoy your surroundings.

Taking a day off doesn’t mean you have to spend the day cooped up inside, lying in bed and dreaming about your next workout (I mean, unless you’re into that). My favorite way to spend a rest day is outdoors, either at a beach, a park, or anywhere I can get a change of scenery from the usual squat racks, platforms, benches, bars, and plates. Believe it or not, the world outside the gym can actually be pretty cool!

6. Invest time in a passion other than training, or try something new!

While training is my biggest passion, it’s definitely not my only passion, and I’m willing to bet it’s not yours either. Think about all the things you used to love to do before training was even a part of your life that you no longer have the time for. Well, guess what? Now you do! And if you can’t think of anything, why not use the extra time to try that thing you’ve always wanted to?

Who knows, you might even discover a brand new passion.

7. Spend the extra time with friends or family.

If there’s one thing that takes my mind off of how much I miss the gym (yes, even after just one day), it’s spending time with people who are close to me. On normal training days, I can be pretty solitary, as I usually have a lot to get done and very little spare time, so I use my off days to spend time with the people that I wish I had more time to see.

If your friends also train, align your rest days so that you can have time for one another and can do something non-gym related… you’ll be surprised how easy it can be to take a day off!

8. Do something active, but not strenuous.

Like I said before, “rest” is not synonymous with “lie in bed all day and don’t move.” In fact, staying active on your rest day will actually help you recover better and avoid stiffening up. Keep the intensity low so your body is able to invest its resources in repairing and rebuilding, but do keep things moving. My favorite things to do are to go for a long walk, an easy hike, or practice yoga.

9. Mobility, mobility, mobility!!!

If you’re reading this, you probably spend a fair bit of time strength training, but how much time do you dedicate just to mobility work? I say it all the time, but I’ll say it again: strength without sufficient mobility won’t get you very far, and it’s a one-way ticket to injury. When we lift heavy weights, we place load on our joints, but if our joints don’t have the capacity to handle such a load, over time they will start to wear down.

That’s why I like to take at least a day or two a week to focus solely on mobility — strengthening my joints through their full range of motion so that I can perform better and prevent injury. If you’re interested in longevity and continuing to practice your sport for many years to come, I suggest you do the same!

10. Remember that by giving yourself time to recover, you are actually becoming stronger.

Let’s say it again, all together now: Training doesn’t make you stronger; recovering from training makes you stronger. Now, if you ever find yourself struggling to cope with staying out of the gym and giving yourself the recovery time you need, just repeat that to yourself. Happy recovering!

Editor’s Note: Luke Hayes – Owner of Trio Fitness – had this to say after reading the above article:

“This article was very relatable for me as I used to workout every day of the week which was hard on both my body and my social life. Since learning that I need to take rest days and spend time away from the gym, I have seen huge progress in my workouts, motivation, and my relationships with friends and family have strengthened. #8 has really made a difference for me as well because I used to spend my time resting on the couch and would end up very sore and stiff. These are all awesome tips!”