The average training regimen is filled with on days and off periods of exertion followed by periods of rest. However, often the fatigue and discomfort after a day of major exertion, whether in or out of the gym, can force one to take a longer period of rest, putting progress at risk. This is where active recovery comes in. Active recovery bucks conventional wisdom by promoting the idea that the best way to cope with exertion is, in fact, more exertion.
What Is Active Recovery?
On a regular training day or for a major competition, you’ll want to push yourself to your limits. Active recovery isn’t about that. Active recovery is a method to recover from and reduce the soreness and fatigue that these days can bring by engaging the body in consistent, low-intensity exercises.
Rather than passive recovery, which is marked by complete physical rest, active recovery seeks to keep the body active and encourage both fitness and recovery by blurring the lines between on days and off days.
Unlike a cool down, which only lasts a few minutes, active recovery, which resembles a light workout, should ideally last around 20 minutes. Active recovery aims not to build muscle or increase strength but rather to stimulate the muscles and acclimate them to being used again.
Circulation is essential to reduce stiffness and fatigue, and for that reason, the focus of active recovery will be a little different than a regular workout. Ideal recovery methods integrate a little bit of massage, either by hand or with a foam roller, and engaging in mobility exercises. This keeps the body engaged without going into intensive stretching.
Now, to the science behind each:
Anaerobic vs. Aerobic Exercises
Anaerobic exercises refer to the high-intensity exertion we encounter, which sees your heart rate reach excess of 80% of its maximum. This level of intensity causes energy to be used in excess of the oxygen making its way to your body. Over a period of time, this leads to fatigue, lactic acid buildup, and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Aerobic exercise, on the other hand, is a less intense workout in which your oxygen intake and energy usage are balanced. Here, your heart rate should never exceed 80%, as that will kickstart your body into an anaerobic mode, negating the effects of the workout if prolonged.
Active recovery integrates aerobic exercise following anaerobic exertion to reduce the fatigue caused by a heavy workout and encourage the dispersal of lactic acid to avoid prolonged stiffness.
Active recovery has a strong concept behind it. But does it work? A 2016 study examined active recovery methods used by football players and canoeists and came with some significant results: Firstly, the groups engaged in active recovery methods noticed significantly reduced fatigue as compared to using passive recovery methods.
Power is a different story. Active recovery was shown to have zero effect on the maximum power of the participants, whereas passive recovery actively reduced muscle performance. Clearly, it sets out what it seeks to achieve: Reduce fatigue and offer a way to keep your body at its finest.
How To Integrate Active Recovery In Your Routine
Generally speaking, active recovery is best integrated immediately after a workout or the day after the extremely heavy exertion that may come with a competition or other major endeavor. No matter when it is performed, active recovery must be done with minimal intensity. Anaerobic exercise will cause your body to react to it like normal training when it is, true to its name, all about recovery.
When done after a workout, it will take the place of a cooldown. While a normal cooldown is only a few minutes, active recovery will last much longer. The study cited previously had participants engage in 20 minutes of recovery, using light walking and exercise utilizing the relevant muscle groups.
Integrated With High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
When used with HIIT, active recovery practices can allow increased training with lower perceived exertion. Because HIIT is an anaerobic practice that creates a great deal of lactate. Active recovery engages the muscles to encourage dispersal to the bloodstream, rather than creating the large buildup that may accrue with passive recovery.
Here, recovery happens in between intervals, maintaining low activity in between periods of high activity.
After a Competition
After a major competition, it may be difficult to return to regular training. After all, your body has just been through the wringer and might need to do so again in just a week or two. Active recovery, in this case, can resemble taking what regularly would be an off day and turning it instead into a recovery day. By engaging your muscles without overexerting yourself, you prime yourself for peak performance as you head back into your training regimen.
What Your Active Recovery Routine May Look Like
Active recovery can take place at the gym or in place of an off day. For that reason, we have gathered a few routines which may help you recover wherever you may be. To repeat the essence of active recovery: Engaging in similar muscle groups to those used in training or competition generally has the best results, especially when matched with light cardio and stretching.
Yoga blends awareness practices, breathing exercises, and stretching in a way that makes it ideal for active recovery. Because various poses allow differing levels of exertion for different muscle groups, customizing your recovery to stimulate the impacted muscles has never been easier.
Self-myofascial release (SMR) is a method of tool-assisted (usually with a foam roller, ball, or another soft object with some give) massage. SMR is aimed at the muscles and tissues of the body. This practice is fairly easy to do on your own, provided you have the right tools and can address lactic acid buildup and the discomfort that comes with DOMS.
Especially for landlocked athletes, swimming can add a pleasant low-impact exercise. Engaging with the water allows the body to be weightless and helps you move in a way you may not be able to on dry land. Hydrotherapy is a common practice in sports rehabilitation, for a good reason.
Hiking provides a wonderful recovery tool, allowing one to joyfully inhabit the great outdoors while still working towards the next big training session. The varied terrain of a trail offers a more well-rounded workout than walking on a treadmill or sidewalk, and there are sure to be plenty of cool spots to engage in whatever stretching you need. Because the weather changes year-round, be sure to dress for the occasion and stay hydrated.
For those who love it, lifting can be used in the recovery process as well. Because the goal is to engage in low-impact exercise over a long period of time, resistance training is best done at a fraction of your usual weight, with a large number of reps. If you are still feeling too sore, choosing an activity other than lifting may be best for you.
When Should You Not Engage in Active Recovery
While active recovery has many benefits over passive recovery as part of a normal routine, there are times when passive recovery offers benefits over its active counterpart. For instance, in cases of injury or overtraining, only passive recovery allows complete rest, which muscles may need to not be further aggravated.
Furthermore, if you’re sick, use your best judgment. Taking a day off and losing a small bit of progress is far better than overtraining and compromising your whole routine once you’re better.
The biggest rule with active recovery: If you can feel your body telling you that something is wrong, switch to passive recovery. Our needs change on a daily basis, so there will be times when active recovery is not the best solution for your physiological needs.
Active Recovery in Review
Active recovery, for the conscientious athlete, can add an engaging and fun recovery method to any training regimen.
It offers a massive amount of benefits, including:
Progress: While active recovery won’t push you further (that’s what regular training is for!), it can keep you well-prepared so you can squeeze every bit of productivity from your “on” days.
Fatigue Reduction: The purpose of recovery is to reduce the immediate stress training can put on the body, and active recovery has been proven to exceed passive recovery in this capacity under normal conditions.
Stamina: Long-duration, low-impact activities can help you focus on your heart rate and be able to maintain consistency over long periods of time.
Variety: Though a less practical benefit than the others on the list, active recovery gives you the opportunity to integrate exercises into your routine, which you might otherwise not normally perform.
Whether added to the end of each workout or used to supplement your off days, active recovery can be a boon to any athlete in the cycle of progress, recovery, and yet more progress to come.