Rest & Recovery: When to scale back your exercise

Embracing the ebb and flow of our energy levels enables us to adapt our workouts to our capabilities, and show up as our best selves without giving up.

It seems strange to start off the new year, when so many people are kicking off brand new fitness goals with enthusiasm and energy, by writing a post on how to scale back your exercise routine. However, I actually think this is the perfect time to address the inevitable: what happens when you don’t feel capable of doing the intense workout you had planned?

Too often we think that we can use motivation or determination to keep our energy level high, but the ebb and flow is a natural part of the process. Whether you are on day 2, day 22, or day 222 of an exercise routine, you will have days you need to refocus, rest, or recover, and it’s important to plan for that from the very beginning.

I especially wanted to write this post for all of you because allowing myself the space for rest and recovery is something I have struggled with during my own fitness journey. I have had far too many days, weeks, and months where I pushed myself too intensely, too often, thinking I was doing myself a favor or proving how dedicated I was. While I felt proud of not “breaking a streak” or “constantly showing up,” I was actually doing more harm than good, giving myself a lot of unnecessary problems with exhaustion and chronic injury. During the pandemic, when we all were given a chance to be more thoughtful and kind with ourselves, I slowly started embracing the rest and recovery I should have been allowing myself from the start – and it’s made a huge difference. My injuries are healing better, my body is less achy, and my performance has improved on the days where I do perform at a high intensity. I had a fear that letting myself scale back would lead to me not showing up, but I can tell you that for me, the opposite was the case.

Scaling back vs an on/off switch

For people that are beginning a new fitness habit, or who thrive on keeping up a streak of workouts logged, exercise can start to feel like an all-or-nothing approach where if you’re not constantly pushing yourself, you’re not really making progress. There is a lot of language in modern fitness culture that adds to that sense of obligation around your effort. As a result, if you have a day where you don’t feel like you can give 100%, you question whether it is even worth putting any effort in at all – does it even “count” if it’s not your absolute best?

But exercise is not an on/off switch, where you are either doing it perfectly or doing nothing. Exercise is like a dial, where all different kinds of movement have benefits. In fact, both lower intensity movement and rest are just as crucial to our health as high intensity movement, and all of them have have an important part to play as part of a fitness journey. You will perform better if you remember to have a healthy balance of all three as part of your routine.

Also, remember your “best” is not actually defined as “the maximum effort we have ever been capable of.” In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz tells us to Always Do Your Best, but explicitly reminds us that “your best” does not mean “the absolute best,” but rather “the best you are able to do in your current circumstances.”

“Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick.”

Don Miguel Ruiz

If a scaled back workout, or no workout at all, is the most we can do in those circumstances, then we are indeed showing up as our best selves. However, It can still feel intimidating or defeating to scale back a planned intense workout to something more mild, or to choose not to formally exercise at all. I’ve put together a series of questions you can ask yourself about why you feel like you need to scale back, which can serve as a guide for what you can do instead.

As always, I am not a personal trainer, physical therapist, or doctor, so please consult with a professional if you have any specific questions regarding your own mental and physical health. I am simply sharing a method that works for me to examine how I’m feeling, and hope that it can be a springboard to help find something that works for you as well.

Questions to ask yourself

Am I physically exhausted?

In a culture of constantly pushing ourselves to do and achieve more, it seems like the first thing we sacrifice is our sleep. Multiply this by the fact that many people have to get up earlier in order to fit exercise into their day, and it’s no wonder we often find ourselves exhausted. Even if we are able to get enough sleep at night, we can still wear out our bodies in different ways: maybe a really active day doing major chores or chasing around kids, or a physically taxing job, or even a particularly intense workout the day before.

What you can do to scale back:

  • Are you simply feeling slightly sluggish? Sometimes just starting the workout (maybe with a little pre-workout or caffeine boost, if those agree with you and won’t interfere with future sleep) will get you the energy you need to feel better and burn off those blah feelings. Start your workout as planned and see how you feel, listening to your body and lowering your weight or intensity if need be. Stop if you start feeling much worse!
  • Are you feeling sleepy or otherwise uncoordinated? Your balance, reaction time, and capacity is probably diminished, so don’t do anything that might result in injury through poor form or slowed reflexes (like lifting heavy weights, complex movements, or fast cycling). If you still want to move, repetitive cardio or low-impact bodyweight movement is probably your best bet. However, a nap might actually be better for you than trying to force movement to happen, so try that if it’s possible
  • Do you have a severe sleep deficit or other highly impactful physical exhaustion? Now is not the time for formal movement – get some rest! Can you take a nap, or something else restorative like a hot bath? If you need to stay awake for now, a low-intensity walk can help clear some of the fog and help you rest better later. Try to get to bed nice and early, as sleep is even more important to your physical health than exercise.

Am I mentally exhausted?

Many of us are dealing with a lot of mental stressors in our lives, even when we aren’t in the middle of a global pandemic. We constantly have to balance obligations at work, with family, with friends, with hobbies, and with other groups or personal goals. It’s enough to leave even the most resilient minds worn out from time to time! Compound that with the fact that many of us are struggling with our own mental health, and it will be common to encounter mental exhaustion.

What you can do to scale back:

  • Are you just a little stressed out or worn down? Movement is a really great tool for dealing with stress, so it might be a good idea to “just press play” or get started with the workout you had planned. Sometimes showing up and accomplishing something or getting sweaty can snap you out of a funk. Be sure to check in with how you’re feeling as the workout progresses – are you starting to get into a flow and feel better, or are you feeling worse? If the latter, scale back to something else or stop if necessary, there is nothing wrong with that!
  • Are you feeling anxiety or stress about a specific kind of workout? Maybe the level of movement or type of workout you had planned doesn’t sync with the energy you have that day. Sometimes, it helps to switch out a rigorous lifting workout or highly stressful guided workout for something more rudimentary, mindless, or freeform. If I’m feeling too anxious, I may choose to do a familiar (though still heart-elevating) workout that I’ve done a ton of times before, or do something less formal like go for a long bike ride. This way, I’m still getting some of that physical intensity while allowing my mind to feel safe and comfortable.
  • Is your mental health affecting other parts of your life today? Rather than focus on any specific kind of formal workout, just try to get moving today. Even if it is walking around your home, running an errand, playing with a pet or child, doing some stretches or yoga, or taking a stroll around the block, movement and a change of scenery can be a good re-centering tool, even if you’re not up for regimented exercise.

If you are having more serious mental health issues, or this is an ongoing pattern that is getting worse, please seek the appropriate kind of expert care.

Am I in pain?

While muscle soreness is often expected in workouts, there is a difference between typical soreness from exercising a muscle, and pain from overwork, stress, or strain. It is very important to listen to what pain is telling you, because if you try to push through it, you can end up with a much worse injury, or even permanent damage.

What you can do to scale back:

  • Are you feeling sore from a workout, but still feel pretty energized and confident in your ability to move? Move with as much intensity as you’re ready for, but maybe select a complementary muscle group to work (such as working your upper body if your lower body is sore) or a different type of workout entirely (such as a cardio or HIIT workout rather than weight lifting).
  • Do you have pain in a specific, non-central area? If you’d still like to move, it might be a good idea to switch to a slower, more deliberate workout that allows you to be extremely mindful of your form, and doesn’t target the area of your body that’s in pain. Listen very carefully to your body, and stop immediately if anything feels worse! This might be a good time to try a low-impact workout as well, such as a brisk walk, a swim, a bike ride, or anything that gets your heart rate up without straining the injured body part.
  • Is your pain more widespread, or more centrally located (such as your back)? Today is probably a day to focus on rest and recovery – can you try to do some stretching or slow, restorative yoga to work on your mobility instead? Make sure to use ice or heat as recommended, and give yourself the space to let yourself heal.

Of course, if your pain is at an intensity that is drastically affecting your life, or is getting worse, please seek the appropriate kind of expert care.

Am I sick?

Generally, sickness means rest. However, some sickness can leave you feeling fatigued, but not quite knocked out, and you might wonder if you should try to exercise and whether it would help you feel better.

DISCLAIMER: Especially in the global pandemic era, it’s crucial to pay attention to the symptoms you have, and get tested appropriately to make sure it isn’t anything serious. It’s also extremely important to avoid being around other people when you’re sick, so any decision you make should allow you to be isolated (meaning, don’t head to the gym or a really crowded running path).

What you can do to scale back:

  • Is it a minor head cold, sniffles, or something that ranks more on the “annoying” scale? It’s probably still not a good idea to do anything intense, but some people find that sustained low-level cardio or lower-intensity bodyweight exercise actually makes them feel better. Listen to your body, especially if your heart rate climbs too high or you feel lightheaded, and stop immediately if you feel worse.
  • Do you have a fever, nausea, or more intense sickness? Rest, rest, rest! Movement will be there for you when you’re feeling better. Focus on nourishing your body with the healthy foods it needs (as your illness will allow) and drink plenty of water.

Have I been doing this too many days in a row?

If none of the above things are true, but your body is still having a very strong “no” reaction to doing this workout, it could be that it’s just craving a rest day. Breaks from intense workouts are just as important as the workouts themselves, as these are the times your muscles are able to repair themselves and get stronger as a result. If you have been doing intense workouts nonstop for more than 7 or 8 days in a row, give your body a break!

What you can do to scale back:

  • Are you worried about “breaking a streak” or falling out of a habit? It’s an admirable goal (trust me, I’ve been there) but I have actually found my performance increases if I let myself truly have a break, rather than just switching intense workouts to a different part of the body. If you still want to log some purposeful movement, get out for a mindful walk or bike ride, focusing on enjoying your surroundings more than the “exercise” aspect. Or, if you want to check off some other productive items on your list, do some active chores around the house, like vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, or rearranging.
  • Do you want to do more on your rest days to get your body ready for the next intense workout? Restorative yoga or therapeutic stretching might be a good idea. If you haven’t invested in a foam roller, they are perfect for working out the knots and tension on rest days. If you have the time and means, it might be a great time to see a massage therapist or chiropractor as well.

A note: all of this advice works really well for self-directed workouts, but I understand there are extra considerations if you are working out with an accountability group, or fitness plan involves a pre-prescribed workout schedule, such as the Beachbody Real-Time programs. Stay tuned for a followup to this post where I discuss how to navigate modifications and scaling back if you’re part of a group exercise program or following a specific regimented plan, without feeling like you’re falling behind!

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