The Case for True Rest Over ‘Active Recovery’


This article is part of SELF’s Rest Week, an editorial package dedicated to doing less. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that taking care of yourself, physically and emotionally, is impossible without genuine downtime. With that in mind, we’ll be publishing articles up until the new year to help you make a habit of taking breaks, chilling out, and slowing down. (And we’re taking our own advice: The SELF staff will be OOO during this time!) We hope to inspire you to take it easy and get some rest, whatever that looks like for you.

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. 

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