Photo by ifa/shutterstock.com | Written by Lori Brand, CPT, Group Fitness and Yoga Instructor
Did you know that when you take a rest day, your body is actually hard at work? You may not realize it while you’re kicking back with a book or taking a long soak in the tub, but your body is using this time to repair and rebuild the muscle tissue you damaged in the gym, making it stronger and better able to crush your next workout.
Your autonomic nervous system has two responses to stress: There’s the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as “fight or flight,” and the parasympathetic nervous system, less commonly known as “rest and digest.” Exercise kicks your body into fight or flight mode, triggering it to release stress hormones, like cortisol, which help your body mobilize stored energy and prepare for action. This lets you run fast, jump high, and perform amazing feats of strength. Recovery, on the other hand, occurs during rest and digest, when your body can invest some of its resources into repair and growth.
Increased muscle growth and performance require balancing the stress of training (needed to stimulate growth), with an environment conducive to actually allowing that growth to happen. By taking at least one rest day a week, you’ll help give your body the time and space it needs to fully recharge. But it’s not enough to simply remove the physical stress of training to enable your body to recover properly. Mental stress, whether real or perceived, has also been shown to interfere with recovery, potentially increasing fatigue and even muscle soreness. Therefore, for optimal recovery, you want to reduce mental stress as much as possible, while at the same time giving your body the nutrients it needs to grow. Here are just a few science-backed ways to optimize your rest day and come back stronger.
Just getting outside and taking a walk, whether in an urban green space or a forest, can have significant physiological relaxation effects. Research from Japan shows that “nature therapy” can increase rest and digest activity and decrease cortisol levels. Exposure to nature decreases one’s heart rate, and reduces anxiety, blood pressure, and the release of stress hormones. At the same time, it improves immune system function and brain activity. A bonus to taking a walk or going for a hike? Light physical activity helps to drive blood flow into your muscles, nourishing them.
Being distracted by what happened yesterday, what you have to do tomorrow, or where else you should be right now, can leave you feeling scattered, elevating your stress levels. Instead, work to be fully present in the here and now. This is called mindfulness. Mindfulness can be developed through activities like meditation and yoga, which help you tune out distractions, turn your attention inward, and encourage consciously slowing your breath. Studies have shown meditation and deep breathing help your body relax, reduce blood pressure, and increase psychological well-being.
EAT FOR GAINS
You might be tempted to eat less on the days you’re not as active. But muscle growth happens for up to 48 hours following a workout, requiring nutrients for refueling and building, which means that what you eat is as critical as the work you put in at the gym. Eat balanced meals of protein, carbs, and fats. Protein, packed with the amino acids required to build muscle, is extremely important on rest days. Aim for an overall daily protein intake between 0.7 – 1 gram of body weight, broken up into increments delivered throughout the day (try small meals every three hours). Also make sure to include plenty of fruits and vegetables, so your body gets ample vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
DID YOU KNOW? Carbs get stored as glycogen in your liver and muscles, providing your body with the fuel it needs to train. Depending on the intensity and length of your training, it can take 1-3 days to completely replenish your glycogen stores, so choose mostly complex carbs that provide sustained energy, such as starchy vegetables, oatmeal, quinoa, rice, and wholegrain pasta.
Proper hydration is crucial for all functions, including recovery. Water aids digestion, carries nutrients and oxygen to your cells, balances electrolytes, and lubricates your joints. While there is no agreed-upon magic number for how much you should be getting, a good rule of thumb is to monitor the quantity and color of your urine to assess hydration, making sure it’s light in color and plentiful. While water is usually best for hydration, if you’re looking for a natural source of electrolytes, consider coconut water.
TAKE A SOAK
Induce relaxation by submerging your body in a warm bath. Warm water is not only soothing, it helps reduce muscle tension and soreness. An ideal temperature is somewhere around 98-100°F. In addition to being relaxing, this temperature will draw blood to the surface of your skin, making any bath ingredients more easily absorbed. Upgrade your bath experience (and recovery) by adding essential oils such as lemon balm, lavender, and rosemary, which have been shown to decrease stress hormones and aid relaxation. Epsom salts, made of magnesium sulphate, can also be beneficial, since training hard can deplete your body of magnesium, making it prone to cramping and muscle soreness. Soaking in Epsom salts enables your body to absorb magnesium, which may help reduce inflammation and improve your recovery time.