The Right Way to Do Active Recovery

man wearing goggles rest at the edge of a pool

Man swimming | Source: iStock

Going from an intense sweat session one day to sitting around watching TV the next feels like an abrupt way to approach recovery. Though it’s true your muscles need time to repair, lying around like a blob might just make you feel stiff and lethargic. And if weight loss is at all a concern, spending an entire day doing nothing can be a real roadblock to success. This is why many gym addicts look to active recovery between their most intense efforts.

In simple terms, active recovery is a workout that’s generally shorter and less intense than your usual efforts. Many people like to go for activities outside of their go-tos as well. This can be a good mental break and also minimizes the chances of you doing another challenging workout, which clearly isn’t going to help with recovery.

Exercising to recover from a workout sounds a little silly, but there’s reason to believe active recovery really can help you feel better in a shorter amount of time than if you’d done nothing at all. Men’s Fitness explained spending a rest day performing more relaxed exercises can increase blood flow to your ailing muscles to help them repair faster.

Some research also suggests active recovery can benefit your performance the next time you hit the gym, track, or whatever activity you typically choose. A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine had male athletes perform a vigorous interval session on the track followed by either a passive recovery or active recovery swim session. These subjects performed a run to the time of fatigue the next day and those who swam performed significantly better. Interestingly, swimmers didn’t report feeling any more tired than those who stuck with passive recovery. The sampling size was rather small, but the results are definitely interesting.

Also consider the opportunity to address areas of weakness. According to Men’s Health, active recovery days are perfect for working on mobility or muscle groups that don’t typically get enough attention on your regular gym days. This will vary from person to person, so take some time to think about where your routine could use a little bit of improvement.

man lifting weights as he looks out the window

Man smiling as he lifts weights | Source: iStock

Since tight hips and hamstrings plague nearly every guy who works a desk job, yoga can be a great activity for recovery days. Need some more ideas for things you can do? BuiltLean said lighter lifting, hiking, and foam rolling are all great choices. If you’re really smart, you can even turn a recovery day into an opportunity to catch up with friends by playing a game of basketball or tennis.

While most people think of active recovery in terms of a full day, you can also use the method during your workout. It might sound a little bit crazy, but some trainers like to have their clients use active recovery between sets of challenging lifts by incorporating significantly easier ones. T Nation elaborated on this method, saying the easier exercises can address other areas of weakness or even help the person work harder during later sets of challenging lifts. Yes, you heard that right — you might actually be able to lift better by using active recovery instead of sitting still.

There’s research to support this idea as well. One study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research had 10 male subjects perform two sets of leg extensions on four different visits. For each 2-minute rest segment between the leg extensions, participants either recovered passively or a using a method that included some other activity. Researchers found performance in the second set decreased faster when using passive recovery compared to the three other methods. Once again, this study is on the small side, so more research will need to be done in the future.

Above all, make sure your active recovery is actually allowing you to recover. You should feel better after these efforts, not wiped out. Without enough rest, you’ll eventually run into overtraining or injury. Professional athletes take days off, so you should do the same.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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