6 Reasons Recovery is Essential to Your Exercise Routine

Rest and recovery days are important for both your athletic performance and your fitness progression for a variety of reasons. Let’s break it down and find out what exactly goes on when you give your body the correct amount of rest.

Brock Armstrong
10-minute read
Episode #390

Photo of a femail athlete who needs some recovery

Most of you fit folks know that you need to get some rest after exercise but many of you still feel lazy or even guilty when you do allow yourself to finally take a day off. Even if you know in the back of your head that the body repairs and strengthens itself in the time between your workouts (not actually during the workouts themselves), still, your recovery time is often the first thing to be skipped in any training program.

Full recovery is defined as your ability to meet or exceed performance in a particular activity.

At its base, full recovery is defined as your ability to meet or exceed performance in a particular activity. That is the definition that is used in scientific papers that are devoted to recovery, anyway. I think that definition is a little basic and kind of confusing, so let’s break it down.

Imagine that you did a really hard run workout yesterday like my favorite: Eight repeats of two-minutes all-out and four-minutes easy. After you do that workout (and until you’re recovered) your ability to run a personal best ten-kilometer race is going to be reduced. That is no big surprise. But once you allow your cells, blood, bones, muscles, joints, and nervous system to bounce back from the physical strain of crushing that workout, you will once again be able to nail that 10k. Plus you will be able to train harder, train longer, and simply feel better when you get out of bed in the morning.

Not to mention, perhaps most importantly, that every time your body bounces back in this way, you get more fit.

In a nutshell, exercise (or any other heavy physical work for that matter) causes changes in the body like muscle tissue breakdown and the depletion of energy stores (muscle and liver glycogen) as well as more basic things like body fluid loss. Your recovery time is the time when your body adapts to the stress of exercise and is also when the real training effect takes place.

Some things that happen during recovery are physiological and some are psychological. But whether it is in your body or in your head, recovery is a vital part of getting fit and staying fit. So vital, in fact, that having too few rest and recovery days can put you in a state of under-recovery which can then lead to overtraining syndrome, which is a condition that can be truly difficult to recover from.

What is Under-recovery?

Simply put, when you are in an under-recovered state and you continue to workout, you are wasting your training time.

Simply put, when you are in an under-recovered state and you continue to workout, you are wasting your training time. You are training for the sake of training, with little-to-no change in performance or improvement in fitness. If you are chronic under-recovering, you will never actually get any faster, stronger, or happier with your performance. 

When you’re under-recovered, you are like a hamster on its little exercise wheel, doing a lot of exciting movement without making any forward progress.

If you continue this way, you will eventually end up sick, injured, or so overtrained that you have to take weeks or months off to recover.

Two Categories of Fitness Recovery

There are two categories of recovery:

  • Short-term recovery from a particularly intense training session or event,

  • Long-term recovery that needs to be built into a year-round training schedule.

Both of these types of recovery are important for optimal fitness.

One part of Short-term recovery is called Active Recovery and that is simply engaging in low-intensity exercise after your workout is over, during both the cool-down phase as well as during the days following the workout.

Another part of the short-term recovery is the replenishing of energy stores and fluids that are lost during exercise. This also involves optimizing protein synthesis by increasing the protein content of muscle cells which can help prevent muscle breakdown and aids in increasing muscle size. This short-term recovery is done by eating the right foods and rehydrating in the hours and days after a hard workout.

Long-term recovery techniques refer to those recovery periods that are programmed into a training program and are often more passive than the short-term ones. Although, as we will learn later, they don't necessarily involve laying on the couch, binging Netflix, and eating Debbie Cakes. A good training schedule will include recovery days and easy weeks that allow your body to recover without getting stale. These periods are as essential to a fitness program as the heavy workout days and the hard training weeks.

Both the short-term and the long-term recovery are important to our body’s adaptation to exercise.

Adaptation to Exercise

When we undergo the stress of physical exercise, our body adapts and becomes more efficient. That is known as the Principle of Adaptation.

This can be viewed in the same way as learning any new skill. At first, it is awkward and takes a lot of thought and energy but the more you do it, the easier and more automatic it becomes.

But there are limits to how much stress the body can tolerate before it breaks down. Doing too much too soon can result in injury or muscle damage. At the same time, doing too little too slowly will result in disappointment. That is why we coaches and trainers build programs that increase time, distance, and intensity at a specific rate and then build in rest days throughout the program to reap the benefits of all that hard work. 


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.