Why You Need Recovery, Not Just Rest

For athletes, rest and recovery are very different things — a distinction that can help you avoid burnout in your own life

Nate Richards
Published in
5 min readJul 21, 2019


Photo: vgajic/Getty Images

IIt’s been a long day. Billy just got home from a hectic day at work, and the first thing he wants to do is flop down on the couch, turn on some mindless sitcom on Netflix, and stare straight ahead without moving for a few hours.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Rest is important, and plenty of people relax by watching TV, taking a nap, or playing video games. But those choices are a temporary reprieve. While they may be enjoyable, they don’t contribute to effective recovery.

I was a competitive long-distance runner for 15 years, and if there is one lesson I learned, it’s that there is a huge difference between rest and recovery. The average weekly training load for any competitive collegiate distance runner is around 60 to 70 miles, and it can get exhausting. But ask any runner how they recover, and their answer may surprise you: “I recover by going for an early morning run.”

Yes, after exhausting themselves by running 60 miles a week, runners recover by running more. This is a standard practice among top runners, and as crazy as it sounds, it works.

Too much time spent resting can actually make us more tired than before we started.

In a 2009 study, exercise physiologist Stephen Seiler, PhD, concluded that the best way to develop endurance is to combine high-intensity training with lots of low-intensity training. Runners need to do slow runs because it allows them to recover faster and gives them a better chance at developing endurance.

In the same way, we can recover from working by strategically practicing active recovery, which looks a lot different from doing nothing.

Rest is passive

Back to Billy. Certainly his muscles will relax while he watches TV, and his mind will find temporary distraction from its problems.

But just because Billy isn’t expending energy doesn’t mean he’ll regain the energy he already lost. In fact, the opposite can happen: Too much time spent…



Nate Richards
Writer for

Translator for the human heart. I write about life, leadership, and travel.