Given our more-is-more culture, the idea of laying off the gym for a while may seem counterintuitive. As though in a matter of days, you’ll somehow completely devolve and wake up with zero muscle tone and the aerobic capacity of an asthmatic chain smoker.
But if you’re a regular exerciser—particularly of the go-hard-or-go-home variety—a little rest may actually be exactly what you need, according to Richard Weil, an exercise physiologist and director of the weight loss program at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City.
“Conventional fitness wisdom has always been to wait 48 hours before working the same muscle group again,” he says. “But muscles don’t repair quickly, and if you’ve exercised really hard, it could take up to five full days for you to fully recover. It’s during that downtime that you get stronger.”
That’s because every time you work out, you traumatize your muscles, creating microscopic tears in the tissue. Sounds scary, but it’s actually the healing of those tiny tears that make your muscles grow in size and strength. “So if you keep training hard, you could defeat those gains and break your body down more than you build it up.” In other words, all that hard work goes down the drain. Not cool.
Also not cool? Overtraining will almost certainly lead to injury. It’s simple overuse math. Traumatize your muscles too much, and those microtears will compound into an injury that will set you back in your training, like a pulled groin or a tweaked back.
None of this is to say that you should totally slug out on the couch.
“Just resting is probably the worst thing you can do,” Weil adds. You want to do something easy to keep moving just enough to increase blood flow to your muscles—which helps with the healing process—but not so much that you add unnecessary stress to your muscles. Think: light exercise, like taking your dog for a walk, going for an easy swim, or a restorative Yin yoga class.
Eating plenty of high-quality protein (eggs, lean chicken, yogurt) can also speed things along.
Proteins are made up of amino acids that facilitate tissue repair—they’re literally the building blocks of muscle. “Carbs and fats are also important, of course, but protein is especially valuable,” says Tommy John, a sports performance specialist in San Diego and the author of Minimize Injury, Maximize Performance. “The right amount of protein is different for everybody. Listen to your body—because trust me, it’s going to be like, ‘Oh, I need this, gimme!'”
It’s equally important to take a break from intense cardio.
In fact, Weil regularly recommends exercise sabbaticals. “Last year, I was giving a talk at a conference, and this doctor came up and asked me about HIIT training. He’d been training really hard but didn’t feel like all the cardio he was doing was helping him improve—and he thought HIIT might be the answer,” Weil says. “I took one look at him and said, ‘You’re working too hard! You need to take a break—not exercise more.’ I suggested seven to 10 days off—even two weeks. He was worried about not exercising for that long, but he did it. A few weeks later, I got an email thanking me for talking him into it.”
“Excessive cardio raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol and other markers of inflammation in the body to unhealthy levels,” John says. “When you run, for example, you’re generating a force of four to five times’ your body weight with each stride. That’s pretty traumatic.” And while powerlifters certainly train that way, they’re also incorporating mobility and flexibility work into their routines—they know the value of recovery and that it won’t set them back.
Weil says you’ll know you’re due for a break if you’re constantly sore, feel like you’re getting weaker, aren’t making progress, or are just bored or burned out. Otherwise, a shorter two- to three-day chill period is probably just fine. A little time off will help you come back stronger and more motivated than before. See you soon, sneakers!
Shaun Dreisbach is a Burlington, Vermont-based writer and editor who specializes in health, fitness, and nutrition.