Once you get into the routine of exercising, it can be difficult to stop. You get almost addicted to that endorphin rush and feel like taking a day off is cheating or a sign you’re getting soft. Or maybe you worry that you’ll lose momentum and have trouble starting back up.
But listen up: You don’t have to go to confession, and you’re not weak. In fact, everyone needs time to recover, and taking a day off here and there will help you grow stronger.
The Importance of Recovery Days
“What leads to strength gains is recovery,” says Ann Wendel, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. Rest days matter regardless of how long you’ve been working out.
“The experienced athlete or exerciser needs to take one rest day a week to minimize the risk of muscle fatigue, severe muscle soreness, injury, a suppressed immune system and loss of strength and performance, and to alleviate sleep disruption,” explains Beth Jordan, a certified personal trainer and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. If you just started exercising or are getting back to it, resting every third day is smart, Jordan adds.
5 SIGNS OF OVERTRAINING
And then there are times when your body is sending clear “don’t hit the gym today” signals. If you experience any of the following, it might be better to rest or do active recovery.
1. You Feel Pain, Not Just Soreness
“There is a difference between muscle soreness and pain,” Wendel says. Delayed-onset muscle soreness typically rears its head 24–48 hours after your workout, and it lessens as you get moving and push out the lactic acid. On the other hand, watch out for pain that is sharp, or pain that gets worse as you exercise.
If you’re just sore, hit the gym and work out other muscles. For example, if yesterday was a lower-body workout, and today you feel it every time you sit down, skip butt boot camp and opt for an upper-body or core routine.
But if you’re more than just sore, and you’re in pain, skip your workout. Try ice or anti-inflammatories first. If the pain persists after a week, get it checked out.
2. You’ve Got a Sprain or Worse
We shouldn’t have to tell you this again, but even when you’re a die-hard exerciser, you shouldn’t work out when you’re injured. However, “a muscle sprain, strain, torn ligaments or tendons, or skeletal fracture requires rest, ice, compression and elevation to begin the healing process,” Jordan says.
Listen to your doctor’s orders and modify exercise as needed. “Depending on the type and severity of the injury, you can still work out,” Jordan says. For example, if you’ve injured your hamstring, you can work out your upper body while sitting in a chair, she says.
Again, talk to your doctor first. It’s better to sit out HIIT class for a few months, rather than risk reinjuring yourself and never being able to do HIIT again.
3. You’re a Zombie, Not Just Tired
We’re all tired, but working out can help energize you. So if you slept, but not soundly, consider sticking to your scheduled workout. “Even if you have to modify movements or shorten a run, you will feel better,” Jordan says.
But if you’re so tired that you experience brain fog, have trouble doing simple tasks or your reaction time has slowed, you shouldn’t exercise, Jordan says. Working out while exhausted could lead to poor form and, potentially, an injury.
4. You’re Sick wIth a Fever
When you’re sneezing and hacking, your co-workers don’t want you sharing your germs. And guess what? Neither do your gym mates. Plus, when you’re sick, your body is stressed. “Adding more stress in the form of a hard workout is probably going to be counterproductive,” Wendel says.
So forget about doing Tabata or going for a new one-rep max. However, if you are fever-free and aren’t coughing or wheezing, a walk, slower yoga (nothing power or hot) or lifting lighter weights at a pace where you don’t get out of breath are OK, Wendel says. Be sure to stay hydrated and modify any movements, and rest when necessary.
5. You’re Hungover
You can’t “sweat out” alcohol to nip a hangover in the bud. “One of the primary hallmarks of a hangover is being dehydrated,” Wendel says. “So if you work out hard, you’ll dehydrate yourself more and stress your system more.” That adds up to a bigger head banger.
Focus on drinking lots of water and take ibuprofen if necessary. “If you can hydrate your body enough to feel better, you can probably work out later in the day,” Jordan says. But don’t push it if you’re not up to it.