What Actually Happens to Your Body When You Take a Recovery Day

Chrisanne Grise
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We get it: When you’ve been working hard to reach your fitness goals, it sometimes feels unproductive to take a day off. But recovery day is actually a crucial piece of your training—you need it to grow stronger and healthier. We talked with Yuri Feito, Ph.D., associate professor of exercise science at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, to learn about why rest days are just as important as high-intensity workouts.

What happens to your body

“Any exercise is stressful for the body,” says Dr. Feito. As you work out—whether it’s riding a Bike, running on a Tread, or lifting heavy weights in a strength class—your muscle fibers are tearing and your heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature are all soaring. “You provide a stimulus to the body, and the body adapts. You provide a greater stimulus and the body adapts. But if you continue to do that, at some point the body is going to start breaking down,” says Dr. Feito. That’s when you start feeling aches and pains—and you’re at a greater risk of becoming injured.

However, some stress—followed by proper recovery—will ultimately make you stronger. After a workout, torn muscle fibers begin rebuilding, enabling your muscles to get bigger. “Recovery allows those fibers to heal and muscle proteins to synthesize so those muscles can grow and be ready for the next training session,” says Dr. Feito. “Your body’s recovery process is where most of the growth occurs.”

How often to rest

Your recovery needs will differ depending on your body and your training plan. If you’re working at a more moderate intensity, you may only need one rest day a week, according to Dr. Feito. But if you’re often pushing vigorously to reach the top of the Leaderboard, your muscles might appreciate one or two days off between each session. The bottom line: “The more that you rev up that intensity, the more that you want to have some recovery days,” he says.

How to stay active

Competing in a Challenge? You don’t have to break your streak just because it’s a recovery day. Foam rolling, stretching, or light yoga will keep you moving—and they’ll also let you fit in components of fitness that you might not be targeting on regular training days, such as flexibility or mobility. “Recovery doesn’t necessarily mean that you do absolutely nothing,” says Dr. Feito. “It just means that you’re not working at the intensity at which you are spending most of your time.”If your muscles need a break, these 10 essential stretches will make your recovery day extra effective.