Rest vs Recovery

When following a training programme, whether an off the shelf routine, something you or your coach have created or even an instinctive training system, you will inevitably have ‘rest days’ in there. But what actually IS a rest day?!

Most of the athletes I coach seem to, quite naturally, think a rest day is simply doing nothing. This is where I have to say, it isn’t!

‘Rest day’ is in itself a misnomer, instead think of it as a ‘Recovery day’ rather than simply the absence of training. This is something that requires a proactive approach to ensure you are ready to train again on the next scheduled session. I think it prudent to say that ‘rest days’ (where you do nothing whatsoever related to training) are important but should be infrequently included in your training, with most scheduled ‘rest’ days in your mesocycle being recovery days.

I see my athletes and lifters coming into the gym after a rest day expecting a good session because they are rested, and they end up having a slow, sluggish, poor session. They might be rested, but are they recovered?!


So what should you be doing on your recovery day?

Foam rolling. As a lot of people who are coached by me will tell you, I bang the drum on soft tissue work with what I am sure is tedious regularity! My target for soft tissue work for most hard training individuals is 3.5 hours a week. This can include foam rolling, stretching, trigger work, massage and flossing depending on the individual. I realise this is difficult to fit in for a lot of people (myself included) so on days you don’t train you have a great opportunity to spend an hour of quality time with your roller!

Stretching. As the points I made about foam rolling, this is an opportunity to add to the amount of recovery work you do over the course of the week. I’m not talking about some casual half hearted ‘stretching’, but more a proactive, aggressive stretching routine including some PNF work and some positional stretching to improve your lifting.

Eating. This is something that drives me nuts! So many people eat with less care on the days they don’t train and it’s baffling to me! You need to eat for two reasons (in a training context), to fuel and to recover. We all know that the recovery is done in the period after you train, from immediate sarcoplasmic recovery and rehydration, reaching up to three weeks for tissue repair. So why on earth someone would scrimp on calorific intake and macronutrient management on a day off training is beyond me! If we also look at the timeframe for glycogen and blood glucose manipulation it quickly becomes clear that for a lot of trainers it is highly relevant to fuel for hard sessions the day BEFORE training, again necessitating a consistent nutritional approach on an unrelenting daily basis.

Supplementing. If there is a particular supplement regime you follow on training days (with the exception of ‘pre workouts’) it would well be wise to continue this on recovery days. Supplements that help you recover such as ZMA should still be included, for many of the reasons stated in the section above. The popular supplement creatine works on a saturation basis, so missing it out on days you don’t train because you don’t have a post workout shake will only serve to lower the level of that saturation, and leave you missing a lot of it’s benefits.

In terms of supplementation that you can omit on recovery days I would say that a post workout shake containing high levels of simple sugars can be left out, as that blood glucose spike, subsequent insulin release and sarcoplasmic recovery won’t be needed. Do be sure to factor this drop in macronutrients into the rest of your daily nutrition though.

Sleeping. Sleep is essential for recovery, and I’m quite big on the opinion that naps are also essential for recovery! I try to follow a handful of rules when napping based on a few of the plentiful studies there are, generally not getting into bed and limiting them to around half an hour, and not napping within five hours of my planned bedtime.


So many people work hard in the gym for hours and hours a week, but may be limiting their progress because they are not spending a little extra time ensuring that they are looking after themselves effectively.

Next time you have a day off training ask yourself this: Am I resting, or am I recovering?