Catchy, traditional phrases such as “move it or lose it” and “no pain, no gain” are well-known motivational tools in the fitness realm. Essentially, they inform you that if you want to achieve your health objectives, you’ll need to work hard.
However, actually living by those sayings – and believing that training with greater intensity, speed, and frequency is a prerequisite for success – only heightens your chances of burnout, injury, and overtraining, as per Allison Tibbs, a NASM-certified personal trainer and Tonal coach. Similar to the car you take on a 12-hour road trip, you must allow your body the opportunity to rest and refuel in order to reach your final destination without operating on empty, she states.
“This is why active recovery is so crucial,” says Tibbs. “It provides moments for you to embrace self-care while still maintaining your progress.”
Below, fitness experts share all the essential information about active recovery, including its definition and why it is vital to incorporate it into your fitness routine. Additionally, they offer suggestions on how to plan active recovery days that leave you feeling your best, both physically and mentally.
What Does Active Recovery Mean?
Active recovery involves engaging in gentle movements and exercises to recuperate from intense training sessions and workouts, according to Katie Fogelson, a NASM-certified personal trainer, MIRROR trainer, and lululemon ambassador. “Instead of taking complete rest, you strategically move your body in other, less strenuous ways to assist and potentially accelerate the recovery process,” she explains.
These activities are generally slower, less impactful, and lower in intensity compared to the workouts you tackled in the previous days. However, that doesn’t mean they have to be entirely effortless, notes Tibbs. “You can still break a sweat and challenge yourself, but the aim is to avoid going overboard or subjecting your body to excessive stress,” she clarifies.
While active recovery days allow your body and mind to recover while in motion, passive rest days involve refraining from any activities related to your training, says Tibbs. “Rest days are when you embrace stillness and truly rest from your workout regimen,” she elaborates. “It’s an opportunity to catch up on sleep, particularly if you work out early in the morning, or you can attend to other tasks throughout the day if you exercise during lunchtime or in the evening.
The Advantages of Active Recovery
Choosing to engage in a relaxed active recovery routine instead of a high-intensity workout, which might incorporate recovery tools, provides numerous benefits for your body.
Enhances Muscle Recovery Speed
To start, “active recovery can enhance blood circulation, assisting in quicker muscle recovery by eliminating metabolites and/or lactic acid, which can accumulate during demanding training,” adds Fogelson. In case you didn’t know, lactic acid refers to the lactate and hydrogen ions produced within your muscle cells and released into your bloodstream during glycolysis, the process where your body converts glucose into energy during intense exercise. When your body cannot expel the lactate and hydrogen ions efficiently while you’re exercising, your performance diminishes, as stated in information published by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). However, transitioning to a lower-intensity activity can help eliminate these substances from your body and restore your optimum performance level, according to the NASM.
Aids in Achieving Training Objectives
Active recovery can also benefit individuals who find it challenging to grant themselves permission for a complete rest day, as it allows the body to rest and recuperate while still engaging in movement, says Fogelson. “This is also an excellent method to maintain the necessary volume of required training, depending on the individual or athlete, without exceeding the limits,” she explains. For example, a runner could continue accumulating their weekly mileage by partaking in lighter jogs on active recovery days. “This enables them to meet their training objectives by adding the required volume without experiencing excessive fatigue or additional stress to the body,” she adds.
Opting for gentle activities on active recovery days, or even granting yourself a rest day with no physical activity, can also be beneficial for your mental well-being. “Active and passive rest days provide an opportunity to rest mentally and prevent burnout and potential overtraining,” says Fogelson.
Deciding When to Take an Active Recovery Day
The specific number and type of recovery days needed varies for each person, primarily depending on the intensity and frequency of workouts throughout the week, says Fogelson. However, as a general guideline, Tibbs recommends incorporating an active recovery day every three days, especially if you exercise at least five days per week. “This ensures that you are allowing your body enough time to recover and repair,” she adds. Additionally, you might also find it beneficial to take an active recovery day after completing a high-intensity workout, such as heavy weightlifting, long-distance cycling, or participating in a marathon run, suggests Fogelson.
And just like the exercises themselves, it’s crucial to schedule days of active recuperation — and complete rest days — into your training regimen, says Fogelson. “Don’t leave it up to chance,” she says. “For the majority of individuals, these days can feel tedious or unproductive, so if you don’t plan them in, you probably will either skip it altogether…or push yourself.” Of course, paying attention to your body and not overexerting yourself is essential, and you should take a day of active recovery or rest when you need it — even if it’s not marked in your calendar. “If you consistently show up to your workouts feeling tired and achy, that could be an indication that you are not fully recovered,” says Fogelson.
Your mental and emotional state should not be ignored either. “If you have been excessively busy, experiencing a lot of stress in your life, or even if your sleep has been subpar, you may also need to take a full rest day,” adds Tibbs. “This is where I see many people get injured because they are not mentally present or don’t have the capacity to be mindful of their form or even make the best decisions for their bodies and training.”
Similarly, consider the “why” behind your workout. Are you pushing yourself to go for a long-distance run because you know it will help you get closer to achieving your training goals, or is it because you would feel guilty if you skipped it? “Chances are, if the compulsion stems from guilt, you may not be in the right mindset to train intensely, and opting for a lighter activity (or simply doing something enjoyable!) could be even more advantageous,” says Fogelson.
Recovery Activities with Physical Engagement
When selecting a recovery activity with physical engagement, first take into account which muscle groups have been engaged in the past few days, then choose an exercise or practice that prioritizes their healing. If you have been striving to achieve a new personal record in deadlifting or squatting, for example, focus on movements that aid in the recuperation of your lower body, suggests Tibbs. In simpler terms, this is a safe way to work the same muscle groups consecutively. Nonetheless, “be open to other areas that may give you trouble,” she adds. “For instance, I tend to incorporate some shoulder and thoracic mobility work into my active recovery days, regardless of which muscles I exerted, because I know that is a problematic area in my body.”
The intensity of your active recovery activity also plays a role. Generally, your perception of exertion during your active recovery practice should fall between four and six on a scale of one to 10, says Tibbs. “You should not be attempting to reach your maximum effort, achieve personal records, or strive to feel sore,” she says. “Instead, focus on moving your muscles and joints through patterns of movement that provide conditioning without putting too much strain on the body.
To provide your body with the tender loving care it requires, consider incorporating any of the subsequent activities into your active recuperation regimen. Select the practices that you personally find pleasurable and focus on the specific muscle groups that feel particularly fatigued from your previous workouts.
These activities not only aid in your recovery from yesterday’s HIIT session or Peloton cycling class, but they can also enhance your future performance, according to Tibbs. “You can draw upon what you’ve done and apply it to your workouts,” she explains. “For instance, when I take the time to inhale deeply and connect with my core on my active recovery days, I can recall that sensation and connection while performing heavy front squats.” Additionally, utilizing tools such as a Theragun massage gun to target soreness can also be advantageous.
The Bottom Line on Active Recovery
Active recovery days are crucial for feeling physically and mentally rejuvenated after a demanding week of exercise. Although it may be tempting to skip them, they should be a permanent fixture in any training routine.
“Active recovery may seem counterproductive to achieving your goals because, as a society, we exalt the hustle and bustle,” Tibbs states. “However, during those moments of active recovery, you afford your body the opportunity to replenish all the hard work you put into your training and ensure you’re priming yourself for success.”
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