Any good training program will include rest in some form, whether it’s a lifting split routine that works only one or two muscle groups per day, a strength or power program that includes hard, medium, and light days, or a competition prep schedule that varies the intensity and duration of runs, rides, and/or swims. But, as much as you’d like to think it so, your body isn’t actually a machine, and sometimes you may have to deviate from the plan. “You should have control over your fitness routine—it shouldn't control you,” says personal trainer Jaime Morocco, owner of Jaime Morocco Fitness. Sometimes that might mean taking a brief hiatus from your usual training—whether that means some easy cross-training, recovery yoga, or just some time in which your activity consists of walking and running errands. So why would you need a couple days off? Here are seven reasons.
1. It actually can make you stronger.
That headline doesn’t lie. When you hit it hard during a workout, you cause microdamage to your muscles. Strength gains come from allowing those muscles to repair, a process that can take time. A sign you might need more than 24 hours? In the training world it’s called DOMS, or delayed onset muscle soreness, and it typically comes on 24 to 48 hours after a tough session. “An extra day off can let the pain subside and allow you to return to the next workout to pick up where you left off—this time without pain,” says Christian Elliot, personal trainer and owner of True Health and Wholeness in Arlington, VA.
2. It can help you overcome a plateau.
If an extra day of rest can make your muscles stronger, it stands to reason that it could also help you bust an annoying plateau, Morocco says. In fact, not only does a longer break give your muscles the chance to come back more powerful than ever, it also gives your neuromuscular system, or the brain-muscle connection, time to reset for better muscular recruitment when attempting heavier lifts that require perfect synergy.
3. It can renew your resolve.
After a while, the weightroom, your program, and even the cute girl at the front desk can start to seem ho-hum. Worse than boredom, you can get discouraged if your gains slow. “By consciously designating yourself two days off, you will be more likely to stick with your plan long term instead of suffering from overexertion and wanting to quit for days or weeks on end,” says Morocco.
4. It can ease you into a new routine.
If you’ve been doing the same thing for a while—or you haven’t been doing much—the first day on a new program can be rough on your body. To encourage good adaptation, and to give yourself time to recover from what will probably be a decent case of DOMS, plan for two days off after your first new workout, Elliot says.
5. It can help you get over an illness.
There are some bugs—like a simple cold—that you can usually work out through. Then there are those that really sideline you. “When the body is healing, it's drawing protein from the muscle's abundance in order to build an army of white blood cells to fight the battle,” says Elliot. “Working out during illness can rob the immune system of needed resources.” So if getting through the workday (let alone getting out of bed) is a struggle, take a pass on the gym until you’re back up to snuff.
6. It can give your joints a break.
“When we push our bodies, they push back sometimes,” Elliot says. “Often the joints are the areas that let us know we overdid it, and because they get less blood flow, they take longer to heal.” So if your knees are squawking after that heavy squat workout or your ankles took the brunt of your long trail run, give ‘em an extra day to calm down.
7. It provides rest after a competition.
If your race, game, or other competition training is done right, you no doubt took some time to taper before the big day. You should also give your body a break after you’ve put it through an event that pushed it to the max. “A high-stress event can leave the body [in need of] a longer recovery period to rebuild the tissue that worked at a greater capacity than normal.” Elliot says.