14 Rest Day Workout Ideas: How To Have An Active Rest Day

Here are some appropriate exercises you can still do on your rest days.

Rest days are one of the most polarizing components of a good training plan for runners.

In my work as a running coach, I find that some athletes can’t wait for their rest days whereas other runners use their greatest debate skills to try and argue their way out of having to take a rest day in favor of another workout.

However, it is important to take rest days in order to prevent overtraining, decrease the risk of injury, and allow your body to recover and assimilate all of the physiological adaptations of your workouts.

The good news is that it is often possible to take “active rest days“ in a training plan so that you don’t have to do absolutely nothing on your day off from training.

In this guide to rest days for distance runners, we will discuss the importance of rest days in a training plan, how often you should take rest days to prevent overtraining and decrease the risk of injury, and ideas for workouts you can do on rest days.

A person foam rolling.

How Do Rest Days Benefit My Running Training Program?

The importance of rest days in a training plan for runners cannot be overstated. Let’s see why:

#1: Rest Days Decrease the Risk Of Overuse Injuries

Running is a high-impact activity and a repetitive one at that. 

Studies suggest that every running step subjects your muscle groups, bones, joints, and connective tissues to forces that are equivalent to approximately 2 to 3 times your body weight.1NILSSON, J., & THORSTENSSON, A. (1989). Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica136(2), 217–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.1989.tb08655.x

‌Running every day or trying to maintain a running streak never fully allows these tissues, muscle groups, and bones to get a break from impact stresses.

A run streak, which involves doing a run every day in a row without taking days off, does not give your body time to fully recover in between each running workout.

Even low-intensity training runs such as easy runs or recovery runs still use the same muscle groups, place high-impact forces on your body, and do not allow true recovery in the way that a full rest day does.

When you run every day, over time, microscopic damage to muscle fibers, bone cells, tendons, ligaments, and other musculoskeletal structures involved in running accumulates because the rate of incurring new stresses exceeds the rate of recovery.

This increases the risk of injury, particularly overuse injuries such as stress fractures, shin splints, tendinitis, and tendinosis.2van der Worp, M. P., ten Haaf, D. S. M., van Cingel, R., de Wijer, A., Nijhuis-van der Sanden, M. W. G., & Staal, J. B. (2015). Injuries in Runners; A Systematic Review on Risk Factors and Sex Differences. PLOS ONE10(2), e0114937. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0114937

A person stretching.

#2: Rest Days Decrease the Risk Of Overtraining Syndrome

From a systemic physiological perspective, trying to maintain a run streak increases the risk of overtraining syndrome.3Kellmann, M. (2010). Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports20(2), 95–102. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01192.x

Overtraining syndrome can cause declines in running performance, sleep disruptions, depression or irritability, fatigue, hormonal imbalances, appetite changes, and a weakened immune system.

#3: Rest Days Decrease the Risk Of Burnout

In addition to the risk of injury, overtraining, and overuse, if you do not take a break from running with at least one or two rest days every week or every other week, you also put yourself at risk for mental burnout.

How Often Do Runners Need To Take Rest Days?

For almost all recreational runners, and even elite runners and Olympic runners, taking a full rest day at least periodically is important for staying healthy.

But, the number of rest days per week versus the number of training runs or workouts you should do depends on several factors, such as the following:

A person meditating.

Running Experience 

New runners for runners who are returning after an injury or a break from running should not run every day because it takes time for the bones, muscles, and connective tissues to adapt to the impact of running. 

Most running coaches suggest starting with running every other day and cross-training on one or two non-running training days. 

Beginners can gradually increase to running 4-5 days per week over the first few months.

After a year or so, your body might be ready to handle running 5-6 days per week, depending on your overall health and training load.

Injury History and Risk

Runners with a higher risk of running injuries should take rest days more frequently in a training week.

Studies suggest that runners with a history of a previous running-related injury have a substantially higher risk of getting another running-related injury, as do runners who wear orthotics (probably less because of the orthotics themselves but because of their abnormal biomechanics that led to the runner wearing orthotics in the first place),

Run Distance and Intensity

Your training volume in terms of mileage and intensity also impacts how much recovery your body needs.

A class of people doing core work.

What Is An Active Rest Day Workout?

An active rest day may sound like an oxymoron, but basically, an active rest day workout refers to a low-intensity workout that you perform instead of taking a full rest day.

The difference between a full rest day and an active rest day or active recovery day is that a full rest day involves taking complete rest or being inactive (sitting, lying down, etc.), while active rest days involve doing some type of physical activity or movement.

You may also hear active rest day workouts referred to as active recovery workouts or low-intensity recovery workouts.

However, active recovery workouts are sometimes a little bit more permissive in how much exercise you are actually getting. 

For example, a bike ride might be considered active recovery, whereas a long-distance bike ride would not really constitute active rest, as the rest component is being overshadowed by the active component.

The key to active rest day workouts is prioritizing low intensity. 

Active rest day workouts should not significantly increase your heart rate or really provide a cardio workout.

If you are increasing your heart rate into higher cardio zones, you are taking a rest day from running training, but doing a cross-training workout instead.

Rather, active rest day workouts are intended to help reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS),4Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403 increase blood flow to muscle groups used during running workouts, aid mobility and flexibility in the joints and muscle fibers, and facilitate recovery.5Lum, D., Landers, G., & Peeling, P. (2009). Effects of a Recovery Swim on Subsequent Running Performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine31(01), 26–30. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0029-1239498

‌Experienced runners may be able to participate in some low-impact cross-training exercises for a more active rest day, but running coaches generally recommend that active rest days for recreational runners (especially new runners) should be truly focused on recovery.

Cross-training would count as an actual workout in a training plan, whereas an active recovery rest day workout would be different types of mobility work, recovery modalities to reduce muscle soreness, and full rest to give your body time to recover.

A person on the elliptical trainer.

What Can I Do On Rest Days On My Training Plan?

Best Active Rest Day Workout Ideas:

  • Self-Myofascial Release With Foam Rolling6Laffaye, G., Da Silva, D. T., & Delafontaine, A. (2019). Self-Myofascial Release Effect With Foam Rolling on Recovery After High-Intensity Interval Training. Frontiers in Physiology10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.01287
  • Dynamic Warm-Up Exercises Or Mobility Exercises Like Inchworms and Fire Hydrants
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Pilates
  • Walking7Swain, D. P., Kelleran, K. J., Graves, M. S., & Morrison, S. (2016). Impact Forces of Walking and Running at the Same Intensity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(4), 1042–1049. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001185
  • Hiking
  • Water Aerobics 
  • Gentle Swimming
  • Core Exercises
  • Dancing
  • Easy Cycling
  • Low-Intensity Elliptical Machine
  • Breathwork
People hiking.

Typically, when you are doing an active rest day workout, you want to keep your heart rate at or below 60% of your maximum heart rate, aiming to be closer to 50%.

The duration should also be relatively short, though what qualifies as “short” depends on your fitness level and regular training load.

A good rule of thumb for an active rest day workout length would be anywhere from 30-65% of your standard workout duration.

Remember, the goal isn’t really to boost your fitness, it’s to help your body recover faster from the workout you already did so that you can hit the next hard workout in a stronger, more recovered state.

Any mobility work, physical activity, or active rest day training should not add to DOMS or induce micro-tears in your muscle fibers.

Rather, it should help promote blood flow to bring oxygen and nutrients to your muscle groups to reduce muscle soreness and promote the healing of microscopic tears.

A person biking at sunet.

You also want to focus on consuming enough calories and carbs on your rest days to help replenish glycogen stores and heal microscopic tissue damage in your muscle fibers, bones, and connective tissues.

Ultimately, rest days count as training days in the training plan because rest gives the body time to recover and make beneficial adaptations to all the workouts you are doing in your training program.

You could always use your day off of running to optimize your training days for the coming week.

You could meal-prep nutritious foods that will keep your glycogen and energy levels high, listen to running podcasts that inspire you and give you running tips for staying healthy or running faster, and catch up on sleep so that you are well-rested for your next hard workout.

If you would like to look into your nutrition to also help aid in recovery, check out this next guide:

References

  • 1
    NILSSON, J., & THORSTENSSON, A. (1989). Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica136(2), 217–227. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.1989.tb08655.x
  • 2
    van der Worp, M. P., ten Haaf, D. S. M., van Cingel, R., de Wijer, A., Nijhuis-van der Sanden, M. W. G., & Staal, J. B. (2015). Injuries in Runners; A Systematic Review on Risk Factors and Sex Differences. PLOS ONE10(2), e0114937. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0114937
  • 3
    Kellmann, M. (2010). Preventing overtraining in athletes in high-intensity sports and stress/recovery monitoring. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports20(2), 95–102. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01192.x
  • 4
    Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
  • 5
    Lum, D., Landers, G., & Peeling, P. (2009). Effects of a Recovery Swim on Subsequent Running Performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine31(01), 26–30. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0029-1239498
  • 6
    Laffaye, G., Da Silva, D. T., & Delafontaine, A. (2019). Self-Myofascial Release Effect With Foam Rolling on Recovery After High-Intensity Interval Training. Frontiers in Physiology10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.01287
  • 7
    Swain, D. P., Kelleran, K. J., Graves, M. S., & Morrison, S. (2016). Impact Forces of Walking and Running at the Same Intensity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research30(4), 1042–1049. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001185
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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