For most sane people, a day off from exercise is a welcome chance to kick back and rest. Talk to many athletes, and they’ll tell you that a rest day feels counterproductive at best and alarming at worst. But no matter your goal, recovery is an integral part of any training plan and crucial for optimal performance, says Michele Olson, adjunct professor of exercise science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. That said, effective recovery—things like getting a massage, meditating, stretching, rehydrating, and eating well—takes work, so don’t think you can sneak in a few “rest” days when you’re feeling a little lazy, she says. Instead, ask yourself these questions to determine if today’s fine to skip or if you should power through.
Am I extremely sore?
General achiness following a tough training session is totally normal. But if you’re exceptionally sore all over (think eight or nine on a pain scale of 10), continuing to exercise could cause severe injury, Olson says. Take a day off, and focus on targeted recovery, such as stretches and mobility exercises for that area. If your pain is consistently localized to one specific spot or part of the body and nowhere else, you could be headed toward an overuse injury, she warns. In these cases, you don’t need to skip your workout entirely. But rather than repeat your typical routine or go for your fifth run of the week, try a different sequence or hop on a bike instead.
Did I sleep well last night?
If the answer is regularly ‘no,’ it could be a sign of overtraining. “Your body is literally too tired to sleep, and it’s probably best for you to take a rest day or two,” says Olson. Most of your recovery happens overnight while you sleep, especially if you’re working out at a high intensity. If you’re experiencing general fatigue due to a bad night’s sleep or really any other inexplicable reason, simply dial your workout down a notch. Go for a light run, head to yoga, or swim. “That way, you can test your body without putting too much stress on it and making you more susceptible to injury,” Olson says.
Is it possible that I’m coming down with something?
“If you’re feeling tired, very achy, and perhaps even feverish, listen to those signs and take a day off,” says Olson. “Your immune system needs to use as much energy as possible to fight off a bug, and you can’t afford to use too much of it on exercise.” Sit this one out, and if after a day you find that it’s just a common cold (no fever, but a runny nose and scratchy throat), you can then work out at a lower intensity, she says. “You should always give yourself a day to figure out what’s going on.
Am I emotionally exhausted?
Sometimes exercise and the subsequent endorphin release can make you feel better instantly; other times, it can just make the problem worse. Listen to your body and be mindful of how various activities affect you. For example, if running at race pace will enhance anxiety, don’t do it. Take it slow, or try something entirely different. Olson, says.
How many days have I worked out in a row this week?
“There are 3 training principles: Specificity, Overload and REST. You must use them all,” Olson says. In other words, if you want to see results, you need to follow three steps: First, be specific about your movements and the muscles/energy systems you’re working, based on your goals; next, progressively scale up those muscles and energy systems to handle a bigger load; and, lastly, include adequate amounts of rest and recovery to capitalize on those improvements. As a general guideline, you shouldn’t stack more than two days of intense exercise together or work the same muscle group heavily two days in a row. “If you don’t use the other days for recovery, your work might backfire and you won’t see the desired improvements,” Olson says