Honoring the Day of Active Rest

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Honoring the Day of Active Rest

Go ahead and exercise in your downtime, but thou shalt keep it easy. That's a command.
By Ken McAlpine

Spring beckons, and with it the temptation to hack out a new you: to strain, hone, and harden without surcease and shed your saggy winter self. Rest is out of the question.

But rest is also mandatory. Every regimen prescribes it, and with good reason. Overtraining -- and the lethargy, injuries, and illness it wreaks -- will stop your comeback cold. If the thought of putting your feet up makes you squirm, however, here's solace for your zealous soul: You do need rest, but a day of easy exercise is preferable to a day off.

"Active rest should be the rule rather than the exception," says Dr. John Duncan, an exercise physiologist and chief of clinical applications at the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas. "It can help you train consistently and maximize your performance."

Make No Waste
Why does active rest win out over the conventional day off? When you settle onto the couch with the Sunday paper after a challenging Saturday workout, several things slow your progress. Though you aren't losing much ground, you aren't making gains, either. More important, you're not facilitating recovery. Your heart slows, and with it the blood that takes healing oxygen and nutrients to damaged muscle and flushes away lactic acid and other waste products produced during exercise.

"You don't want those toxins sitting there clogging things up," explains Diane Buchta, a certified fitness specialist and owner of Tri Fitness in La Jolla, California, whose clients range from corporate executives to professional triathletes like Paula Newby-Fraser and Mark Allen. The training schedules that Buchta maps out for her clients include one to three days of active rest each week.

Remember, the operative word here is rest. You need to work hard enough to remove wastes and promote healing, but not so hard that you produce more wastes or drive yourself into overtraining and potential injury. As elusive as it sounds, this level of work is fairly easy to define. Lactic acid production begins about the time you reach 65 percent of your maximum heart rate (subtract your age from 220 to estimate your maximum). So experts recommend that your efforts stay just below this ceiling -- easy exercise at a conversational pace -- on active rest days.

Do Whatever Isn't Work for You
Besides repairing damage, says Duncan, this seemingly innocuous effort is enough to provide conditioning to the muscles and cardiovascular system. And if you're willing to do something different with your active rest time -- say, in-line skating if you're a swimmer or biking around town if you're a runner -- you'll be recruiting new muscles and taxing slightly different aerobic pathways. These bouts can last as long as your self-restraint. "Time doesn't matter," says Duncan. "You can benefit from 20 minutes or six hours of active rest, as long as you keep the intensity down."

Buchta throws the door open just as wide, and adds that how you fill that boundless time is also up to you. "The quality that really determines active rest is fun," says Buchta. "If it sounds like work, then it's no good."

And if you insist that nothing could be more fun than sticking with your sport, you still have options. Six-time Ironman champion Dave Scott coaches a cadre of triathletes in Boulder, Colorado, who take one or two of the triathlon sports down a notch on active rest days.

Essentially, Scott tries to ensure that his charges skirt anything that might require effort. If they're intent on running, he keeps them away from hills. Swims are mostly breaststroke and backstroke, and cyclists stay in low gears and move between sitting and standing.

Keep the Rest Flexible
But that's for competitive triathletes, who can actively rest with any of three sports and still be in their element. If you're not the multisport sort, says Scott, "It's better to do something entirely different than usual." If you're training for a marathon and put in a hard ten-miler on Wednesday, for example, Scott suggests that on Thursday you do 30 minutes of recreational swimming or an hour of easy spinning on your bike.

How you slot active rest into your training schedule is just as personal. Since their primary role is as a recovery tool, active rest days do the most good when they follow a day of hard effort, and one day of active rest may not be enough. During intense periods of training, Scott puts his trainees on a ten-day cycle: Hard days are buffered by two days of easy effort, and one day completely off. Scott keeps that schedule flexible. If intense workouts seem to be driving someone toward overtraining, he might toss in an entire week of active rest. "No heart-rate monitors, no looking at the clock, just easy efforts that get in the miles," he explains.

Buchta also varies her active rest prescription depending on the individual, and she agrees with Scott that a day of complete rest is almost always beneficial.

"Taking a day off is good counsel," she says. Then she pauses and starts to squirm. "But I have a hard time doing it myself. That's the best thing about active rest -- it gives you a recovery period , but at the same time it satisfies your want to be out there and moving."

Ken McAlpine, a frequent contributor to Bodywork, wrote about exercise and the immune system in the December 1994 issue.

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