Pushing yourself to your limits and beyond is great, but what do you do on the days in between training sessions? Find out how to speed up post training healing with active recovery.
In this post we look at the benefits of active recovery. Recovering after a workout is an essential part of physical fitness. Regardless of the type of training, you do, it’s guaranteed that you’ll suffer from some form of post-training fatigue. This could be in the form of
- Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
- Muscle damage (small microscopic tears).
- An overall feeling of physical fatigue.
There are two routes to helping you overcome this fatigue, ‘Passive recovery’ and ‘Active recovery’. Let us explore the differences.
Passive recovery simply means doing nothing, the body stays completely at rest. Following a tough workout, you might simply die on the couch, binge-watching Netflix or sleep, avoiding unnecessary muscle contractions. No one will judge you on this if you have put the work and effort in 😀.
Passive recovery is important and beneficial if you’re injured or in pain. You might also need passive recovery if you’re very tired, either mentally or physically, after exercising. However, this may not speed up recovery as fast as you may think.
Active rest (left) hiking vs passive rest (right) recovery by doing very little.
Active recovery involves utilising non-strenuous aerobic or physical activity in between training days to improve recovery and performance. For example, walking, swimming, or yoga. It’s typically done on the day after high-intensity exercise, or between workouts, and has numerous benefits.
It should be noted, that both recovery methods are useful and important. People may use one or the other at different points to suit their needs.
How, What, Where, and Why
Active recovery is ideal to use in between intense training days. Whilst the muscles repair, the recovery time is put to good use by engaging in light activities that promote fitness in some small way.
It is an ideal opportunity to improve in neglected areas such as flexibility, motor skills, balance, core work etc. It may also be the opportunity to just get out and undertake long walks, swimming or some other form of outdoor activity. The activities help you keep active, loosen tightened muscles, and help get rid of lactic acid, whilst still burning calories. This can be a great way to prepare the body for future training sessions whilst speeding up the recovery process.
Cycling is a great form of active recovery. Allows you to get away from the city. Hit the parks, local trails or the countryside if that is an option.
Granted after a heavy training day passive recovery (hitting the couch) may seem far more preferable option. And again, no one is going to judge. You know your own body, and you know what type of rest it requires. That said, when done right, active recovery should feel like an off-day compared with your regular training. Active recovery should be something light and that you actually enjoy. It doesn’t have to be a structured workout. The aim is to do some easy, light movement simply to keep your blood flowing.
Professional athletes and recovery
Professional athletes cannot afford time off. They need to be on top of their game. Their recovery days are their ‘rest’ days.
The goal of any recovery is to aid our bodies in returning to a state of homeostasis. Homeostasis (simply defined) is the body’s normal operating state, the optimum state that promotes survival. In layman’s terms, after we have fully recovered from exercise, we should feel refreshed, no longer sore, and physically ready for the next workout. So without all the pain and the inflammation in the case of us with our training fatigue. It also means our energy levels will be restored to maximum post-recovery once we reach homeostasis.
Homeostasis. The body feedback loop system for regulating the body’s functions and keeping us in an ‘optimum survival state’.
On recovery days the aim of the game is to rebalance the books and achieve homeostasis. Adequate sleep, stretching, activity, proper nutrition, and time are necessary components to help us reach this state. By not achieving homeostasis our energy and performance may suffer in future training sessions. Long term neglect in post-training recovery can potentially result in injury, sickness, fatigue and burnout. So definitely something that shouldn’t be ignored.
Rebalancing the books. Stretching out the tight muscles and getting rid of the lactic acid build up.
Balancing the books
You should try and dedicate (at least) one day of recovery, (although personally, I’d say two!) Be aware, you may need more if you are new or returning to fitness, or have increased the difficulty of your training. Listening to your body is important. If you did a tough workout yesterday or feel fatigued or sore, it’s best to consider active recovery over training.
Note: There is never ‘too little’ exercise in active recovery, you do as you feel. As much as you feel. Problems can occur however when people do too much on active recovery days. You should feel rejuvenated after undertaking recovery and not exhausted. If you are still over-tired/fatigued after the activity, the recovery you are doing is too intense. You may need to rethink your options.
Swimming is a perfect active recovery tool. Non impact but still engaging all the muscles and giving a good cardio workout also.
Keep an eye on how hard you perform during active recovery sessions. It’s all too easy to overdo it. Keep reminding yourself that this is rest. Make a note of how you feel when you get back to the gym. Do you feel rested and refreshed or not? Make adjustments as needed.
Not giving your body enough time to repair itself, this can lead to all manner of overtraining negative symptoms. These can range from fatigue to poor sleep, constant aches and heightened stress, These negative effects can cancel out any positive benefits of exercise if you are not careful.
Summary of the Benefits
There are some very great benefits active recovery days offer.
Enhanced recovery:Helps reduce toxins and lactic acid in the muscles. Helps repair damaged muscle tissues and soreness. Replenishes fluids in the body. You’ll be able to go into the next session fully recovered.
Serotonin release:Keeps you positive and on a high. Pushing forward and making small gains.
Stress release:Take a mental break from your regular training. Active recovery is invigorating without leaving you exhausted. Many look forward to these sessions.
Burns calories:It may be a lighter workout but it will still elevate your heart rate and burn extra calories. Without being overly taxing.
Improved circulation:Active rest improves blood flow (any activity improves circulation).
Work on Flexibility:Working on flexibility with body weight and light weights can help improve balance, coordination and technique. Stretching stiff muscles helps keep them flexible.
Work on Mobility:Mobility is how much your joints can move in their sockets. And it’s important for a lot of everyday activities, as well as exercise and many sporting activities.
Mental preparedness:Prepare your body for its next training day without causing fatigue.
Staying Focused:Stay on target with your dedication to your future goals. Days off can make it tough to get back into.
Opportunity to work on problematic areas:For example poor thoracic (upper-back) mobility, bad ankle mobility, tight hip flexors, and a weak core and glutes.
Opportunity to socialize:Get out and play some sports. Join a club. Go walking with a friend.
The opportunity to try something new:Try your hand at yoga, martial arts or rowing
Rest days are highly important. Healing and resting up are all part of the growth process. Granted this is not so easy for those of us that want quick results. Don’t neglect the body’s needs, the recovery time is all part of the adaptation process. If you are not healing, you are not growing. Sooner or later you will hit physical or mental burnout. Be patient, learn to enjoy the recovery process and put it to good use.
Passive recovery is useful when needed, but consider active recovery when possible. A useful tool that can pay dividends over time. Learn new skills, and improve in areas of weakness. Your body will thank you for the rest and the extra time for repair will pay it forward in terms of improved performance in future training sessions.
Our next post will look at 10 ideas for active rest.