Active Recovery vs Rest Days: Which is Better for Runners?

What are the benefits or active recovery vs rest days?

When I first started running, the popular advice that I heard was that rest days were especially important.  I was told, by my trainers and coaches, who had years of experience, that you needed rest days in order to recover from harder or more intense exercise, such as speed workouts or long runs. And they were not wrong. That advice is still good today. But, as I learned more about running, my “rest days” have morphed into something completely different that includes using lower intensity activity as a way to actively recover.

I started to dabble in the realm of streak running, which is not what you may think.  Those who “streak” run at least a mile every single day (wearing clothes). Because running made me feel good, it was something I wanted to do daily. But that nagging voice of my early trainers kept rolling around inside my head… “You need rest days or you’ll wind up injured.”

Do We Need to Take Days Off? 

Will someone who runs every day for weeks, months, or years eventually injure themselves? Certainly runners, like other athletes, are prone to injuries such as tendonitis, runners’ knee, shin splints and the list goes on.  The question is, are those injuries the result of frequency? I wondered if I could workout daily, how I could do it successfully, without injury. Then, I discovered what is known as a Recovery Run.

Although some studies have provided evidence for active recovery, as a whole, the research remains inconclusive. There are many factors involved that make interpreting the science of exercise recovery difficult. Whether you should do passive recovery, active recovery, or a combination of the two, depends on many factors, including your fitness level, health status, and training goals.

Whether it is between interval bouts, immediately after an interval session or the day following strenuous exercise, there is compelling evidence that an active recovery is superior to passive recovery.

The Science of Post-Exercise Recovery: Research from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) Scientific Advisory Panel
Lance C. Dalleck, PH.D.
Del Coso, J. et al. (2010). Restoration of blood pH between repeated bouts of
high-intensity exercise: Effects of various active-recovery protocols. European
Journal of Applied Physiology, 108, 523–532.

Should You Run Every Day?

While I run at least a mile every day, and have for well over 1000 days, I’m not here to promote streaking. It’s not for everyone. There are a lot of factors to consider before deciding to do this, or other types of daily fitness.  Considerations include how long you’ve been running, level of motivation, personality traits, can you keep your pace slow, how much free time you have, life happenings, priorities, goals, and so much more. 

Traditional rest days and passive recovery aren’t absolutely necessary.  There are thousands of people who, like me, run daily.  Some have been doing it for decades.  A few legendary runners have been out everyday for more than 50 years. 

Take rest days if you want to, but they’re not mandatory for successful training or injury prevention. That said, you shouldn’t continue to push your body day after day.  When you’re running back-to-back, you need to be smart about it by adjusting your intensity. If you’re training more than 3 days per week, some days should be easy, sometimes you should go slowly.

What Is An Easy Run?

An easy run is slower, shorter, and flatter.  It doesn’t cover long distances, go fast, or go up and down hills.   During an easy run, keep your heart rate in zone 1 or 2. You should be able to catch up on old times with a fitness buddy without losing your breath.  In other words, you should be traveling at a conversational pace. If you’re alone, you should be able to recite your favorite poem, or sing your favorite song, without missing a beat. 

One of the best ways to avoid overexerting yourself is to listen to your body. Easy activity should feel relaxing! Again, run slow, short and flat during these sessions.

What Is A Recovery Run?

A recovery run is an easy session that is done following harder workouts.  It is usually done the day after distance, endurance, or speed training, hence the term “recovery run”.  Recovery occurs within 24 hours of more strenuous training sessions. 

Why should you replace rest days with active recovery?  Here are a few of the differences in how you body responds to a full stop, resting, and continued mild movement.

What Happens When Your Body is at Rest Following Training? 

Most people think of rest as a full stop, doing nothing, or lazing on the couch.  That sounds great doesn’t it?  Perfect after a hard workout.  You earned a lazy day, right? 

But let’s look at what a full stop does to your body after a hard workout. 

Blood and Lymph Circulation

Yesterday, your body’s muscles and heart were working hard.  They were pumping blood and lymph around to supply your muscles with much needed energy and oxygen to keep you moving. 

And today, on that couch, you’re not working very much at all.  Your heart isn’t contracting as hard.  Your muscles aren’t contracting much either.  So, your blood and lymph fluids aren’t flowing as fast. 

Metabolic Waste By-Products

When your blood and lymph aren’t flowing as well, metabolic waste products aren’t eliminated as quickly.  They’re not meant to just sit around irritating your muscles.  This may even trigger more inflammation. 

Resting Heart Rate

If you’re an athletic person, your resting heart rate can be as low as 40 beats per minute. That isn’t very fast at all.  The average person has a heart rate of 60 to 100. 

When your heart isn’t pumping blood around as much, your muscles are slower to get the nutrients and oxygen they need to heal from the previous day’s workout.   

Do recovery days have to be rest days?
Do recovery days have to be rest days?

Shortened Muscle Fibers

Exercise, especially movements that cause eccentric contractions, can lead to micro-damage of muscle fibers.  While this sounds bad, it’s the repair of these small tears that builds and strengthens the muscle.  So, ultimately it is usually a good thing. 

But repairing these tears can cause the muscle fibers to shorten if you’re just sitting on the couch.  This means that it may not contract as well until it is stretched back out.  This may leave you feeling stiff. 

Rotating Training with Active Recovery

This is what is happening inside your body when you move more the day after a harder run. 

Nourishing Healing Muscles

When you get up off the couch and go for that recovery run, your blood and lymph start flowing better.  Your arteries and veins open wider.  And your muscles become bathed in nutrients and oxygen. 

Reducing Stiffness and Soreness

Also, during a harder workout, your muscles become inflamed. This is a normal and beneficial thing.  It will trigger your muscles to heal and become stronger, eventually.  But it may leave you sore for a day or two.

This inflammation produces metabolic waste products.  If these by-products just sit around, they may cause irritation and more muscle inflammation.

So, getting up and doing an easy run or light exercise can help your blood and lymph flow to remove these metabolic waste products and may help reduce post training soreness. 

Gaining and Maintaining Flexibility

The other benefit to moving the next day is flexibility.  When you just sit on the couch, your muscle fibers will contract down and shorten.  This will prevent them from working to their full potential at your next training workout. 

The best way to stretch out these fibers is to move. This is similar to dynamic stretching and is recommended over static stretches.  You should not be doing static stretches without warming your muscles, with a light run, first, anyways. 

Moving between more intense workouts can increase range of motion
Moving between more intense workouts can increase range of motion

Feeling More Fit through Daily Activity

Your training has made you tired. And now you do a recovery run starting out in this tired state. Your brain and body will try to avoid the most tired muscle fibers in favor of muscle fibers that aren’t as fatigued.

Thus, you become more efficient in the use of your muscles. The end result is that you’ll feel stronger and more fit.

Encouraging Mental Strength by Recovering Actively

Once you feel the benefits of a recovery run, you’re more likely to do it again. Trust me, it’s tough to convince yourself to get up off the couch and get back out there when you’re stiff and sore

My toughest run was a 2 km, the day after my first marathon.  But I felt so much better afterwards.  It was totally worth hobbling along those first few hundred meters or so. My stiffness worked itself out as I continued to move.

This increases your mental fortitude.  You learn that you can do this and that you feel better afterwards.  This mental stamina can carry you to the finish line during a tough race too. Recovery runs can help you develop an athletic mindset.

Benefits of Recovery Runs

So, you may feel some benefits of getting out there, and moving, the day after a training run.  

Let me summarize some of the things you may experience from active recovery…

  • improved blood and lymph flow
  • elimination of metabolic waste by-products
  • better flexibility
  • feel less stiff
  • experience less soreness
  • muscles become more efficient
  • increase strength
  • increase fitness
  • enhance mental determination

Active Recovery Doesn’t Have To Involve More Running

Less intense activity doesn’t have to be more running. You can achieve the same benefit through walking, swimming, cycling or other cross-training activity.  Anything that moves your muscles, joints, and bones can be used.  You just want to do something mildly active that will elevate your heart rate enough to circulate blood and lymph. 

But, you should still do these activities at an EASY level if they are following a harder workout. 

Avoid exercises that use a lot of eccentric contractions, as these are the types of exercises that lead to DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). You don’t want to add to your soreness, you want to heal from it. To do this, keep your heart rate in zone 1 or 2.

Active Recovery: Some Guidelines

Remember I said that a recovery run is not long, fast or hilly?  There are some guidelines you need to follow to prevent overtraining.  You don’t want to over do it and wind up injured. 

Keep these things in mind when implementing active recovery:

  • Run at an easy, conversational pace. 
  • Keep your heart rate in zone 1 or 2.
  • Keep the duration short. Depending on your training goals, 20 to 40 minutes is likely all you need.
  • No hills.  Run flat. You want to minimize eccentric contractions.
  • Stay relaxed.  Enjoy it. 
  • Recovery runs are most beneficial for those who workout more than 3 days per week.

If you’re too tired, fatigued, or are experiencing any pain, then perhaps it’s best to take the day off to rest, full-stop!

Recovery runs aren't the only way to actively recover
Recovery runs aren’t the only way to actively recover

Rethink Your “Rest Days”

To me, a “rest day” is a nice, easy, slow and short recovery run.  But, for you, it could be gentle yoga, a casual swim, a slow bike ride, or a refreshing walk around the neighborhood. 

What do you enjoy as active recovery?

Author profile

Patricia Prince has science degrees and has worked in the medical research field for over 10 years. A breast cancer survivor, she is passionate about running and healthy living. She believes that eating wholesome food and being active is the path to regaining health. She regularly blogs on her website, pinkribbonrunner.com.

7 thoughts on “Active Recovery vs Rest Days: Which is Better for Runners?

  1. I think this is wise advice. I’ve been active year round since I was a kid, and I always do better in the long run when I have an active rest day after a harder exercise session. Good post!

  2. I found my running came on the most when I ran 6 days a week last January. I’ve had a bad knee since April but I’m running 2 or 3 times a week again, only up to 5km since that 12km that did the damage. I’m hoping to run almost daily in January next year and get back to where I was last spring. Good to hear advice that complete rest isn’t necessarily the only option during training, though of course recovery is a different matter.

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