Every dog needs a little R and R, right? There are many questions about this topic so let’s address what exactly a rest day entails for the canine athlete. What can your dog do or not do on that day? Why does your dog need it? Is a rest day different from a recovery day?
What is the Rest Day or Active Recovery Day?
A rest day is a day that your dog’s body uses to physically and mentally recharge. Rest days are also called active recovery days. The phrase active recovery is more precise in that your dog should not be a couch potato on these days.
Why does my dog need an active recovery day?
Without effective rest days, all the rewards and benefits of fitness training can be negated. Working out produces microtears to the muscles and soft tissues. It is AFTER the workout that your dog’s body will then repair and rebuild the muscles into a bigger, better, stronger version. This allows the muscles to handle the increased demands placed on them during the workouts. Inflammation and delayed onset muscle soreness can also occur after a workout, which can take up to 72 hours to resolve.
Intense workouts also tax or stress the nervous system. On recovery days, the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system) is decreased. The parasympathetic system, or calming, system is stimulated. Cortisol levels drop. Physiologic stress lowers and the body can fully relax. Muscles are rebuilt, energy stores are replenished, support structures are strengthened.
When your dog’s body does not have sufficient time to repair and rebuild, your dog will actually experience a decrease in power, strength, speed, and endurance instead of an increase.
What can my dog do, or not do, on active recovery days?
On rest days, your dog can perform any functional activity of daily living, but shouldn’t participate in any vigorous activity that will really increase heart rate or breathing, or really get the blood pumping for any significant amount of time! Additionally, your dog should not do any intensely "mental" or stressful activity on an active recovery day.
Although rest is important, the worst thing your dog can do is nothing. So a rest day should still involve movement (active recovery). Your dog’s body, and mind, need some stimulation every day.
An active recovery, or rest day, is not the same as a light workout day. On light workout days, your dog will still do fitness training, and/or sport specific skill training, with clear goals - just at a lower intensity than other workouts. Low intensity workouts should alternate with high intensity workouts. Low intensity workout days are similar to active recovery days in that they also allow developments to occur in your dog’s body, but the training goal for an active recovery day is only active recovery. An appropriate use of light workout days facilitates the more intense training days and will actually reduce the need for rest days.
Every dog is different in how often then need a rest day. If your dog is new to fitness or not used to being active (deconditioned) then your dog may need a rest day after every workout. The general recommendation for the average active dog is one rest day a week. If your dog is an experienced athlete and uses light workouts appropriately mixed with high intensity workouts, your dog may only need an active rest day once every 10-14 days.
Great things to do on active recovery days include working on flexibility and mobility, so activities like walking, dynamic stretching, gentle trotting, or leisurely swimming. Remember that increasing respiration and heart rate to a level just above normal and challenging your dog’s range of motion are generally good things to do. Fun activities that are not super intense, physically or mentally, are also appropriate.
Rest is a training variable that you will apply in response to the feedback your dog gives.