It can be so tricky to convince yourself to do a light session when you’re feeling up for more. Even when I have easy days planned, I find myself wondering what’s the harm in running a little faster? If my body feels up for 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 get broken down when you do a hard workout, but exercise’s effect on your body is actually twofold: metabolic and mechanical.
“When working out, 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 part in the repair process. Setting your body up to optimise this repair and recovery process will help you get the most out of your workout.”
On the other hand, metabolic stress happens when you burn through the energy stored in your liver and muscle cells (also called glycogen). Once glycogen is depleted, the body needs time to replace it. And if you don’t let your body recover, you’ll see the consequences.
“Overtraining syndrome often presents as generalised fatigue,” says Dr Tauberg of the relatively common condition. “People will feel tired, plateau, have issues falling or staying asleep, and possibly develop psychological issues. The body might even enter a state where it starts to use the muscles as an energy source.”
Yikes. I’m pretty sure none of us want our bodies breaking down our hard-earned muscle. We know that recovery matters – but what does good recovery look like?
What’s the difference between rest days and easy days?
Rest days and easy days aren’t the same thing. A rest day is a day off from all exercise. You don’t need to chain yourself to the sofa, but on these days, you should try to give yourself a complete physical and mental break from exercise. Instead of working out, catch up on chores at home, spend time with friends, enjoy time outside or watch TV.
Easy days are a little different. Although you work out on easy days, you should aim to keep the intensity low. The goal of these days isn’t to make major gains – it’s to aid in 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 make you feel fresh and ready to crush your next hard workout.
How to have a useful and enjoyable ‘easy day’
Make peace with taking it easy
This day is supposed to be low-key, so keep that front of mind when prepping for your workout.
“Being uncomfortable with rest is very common,” says pilates instructor and health coach Annalicia Niemela. “When you notice you’re uncomfortable with a rest day, ask yourself, ‘Why?’ Then, allow this questioning to illuminate some beliefs you may have about yourself or about rest that may not actually be healthy.”
Maybe you’re afraid that if you don’t work out hard enough, you’ll get weak, halt progress 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 question them, resting becomes less triggering and more rejuvenating,” says Niemela.
Dial the intensity back… a lot
Not sure what an easy day looks like? It doesn’t have to be complicated – you can simply take one of your normal activities and scale back the intensity. This could be swimming, running, cycling, yoga, or even brisk walking.
According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), you should aim to stay around 30 to 60% of your maximum heart rate. If you’re not sure what that means for you, use the ‘talk test’. If you can comfortably hold a conversation and aren’t struggling to catch your breath, you’re going at the right pace.
You may have noticed these are all pretty cardio-dominant. If most of your workouts focus on weight training, you’re probably thinking, what should I do?
As hard as it is to slow down, your muscles really need a break – especially if you’re supplementing your runs with lifting. Personal trainer and powerlifter Robert Herbst recommends putting the weights aside in favour of a fun activity, such as an easy bike ride or basketball game.
“If you feel you must do your same type of activity, lay out an exact light workout designed to promote recovery, and follow it,” he says. “For example, if you did heavy bench presses yesterday, do some light, high-rep band tricep pushdowns.” This exercise won’t tax the muscles, but it’ll flush them with blood and help you recover.
Trick yourself into slowing down
We may set out with the best intentions, but it can be way too easy to feel good halfway through a run and get a little carried away. Suddenly, you’re chasing your Strava, lungs burning, and your easy day plan’s gone out the window.
That’s why certified personal trainer Matthew Scarfo recommends safeguarding your easy day with a few simple tricks. “If you’re going to go for a walk, make it hard to go for a run by wearing less-supportive clothing or clothing that’s too warm for a run,” he says. Yes, that means wearing your flimsy old yoga bra so that running is literally painful.
If that seems a bit extreme, try making a firm plan by committing to a class. “This might mean signing up for a low-impact or easy dance fitness class,” Scarfo says. You could also try setting up a jog or cycle date with a friend or pre-booking a 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 cancel.
Make stretching and mobility a priority
Your easy day doesn’t have to be all jogging and cycling and resistance bands. In fact, it’s a great excuse to devote some time to stretching and mobility – both of which will help you recover faster and avoid injury.
“A workout consisting of foam rolling and a short 10- to 15-minute yoga session on your easy days is a great way for you to recover, prevent injuries, refocus your mind, and move better not just for your training, but also for everyday activities,” says certified personal trainer Melissa Rodriguez. “The key is to engage in an ‘active’ recovery workout.”
Rodriguez recommends a combination of foam rolling, dynamic stretching and static stretching.
“Stretches characteristic of yoga can help you improve your range of motion and mental toughness,” she says. “Moving through a full range of motion and isometric holds can be challenging.”
While this may be a different type of challenge than you’re used to, it should still be tricky. “Foam rolling and stretching challenges your mindset from pushing your muscles (as you would typically do for intense sessions) to listening to your muscles,” says Rodriguez.