As much as we’d love nothing better than to spend the day motionless while lactic acid takes over, the best road to recovery after a heavy workout involves active recovery.
Exercising while nursing an aching body instead of staying still might seem like a paradoxical way of bouncing back, but you’ll be surprised to learn that not only does it speed up the recovery process, but also helps you get stronger faster. If you’re a go-hard-at-every-workout kind of person or just hate taking a day off from exercise, active recovery also lets you get in some activity while giving your body the rest it needs.
What is it?
Unlike passive recovery (which is also important), active recovery involves low-intensity exercises that promote blood flow to the muscles to help them recover better.
The only catch is you’ll need to be active enough to increase blood flow, but gentle enough to allow your muscles to heal. An easy guide is to incorporate movements that require no more than 60 to 70 percent of your maximum effort.
On active recovery days, your goal is to hone in on breathing techniques while addressing problematic areas such as tight hip flexors, a weak core, or even bad ankle mobility. Your heart rate should be slightly elevated (it’s okay to break a sweat), but avoid HIIT workouts or intense cardio that can add to joint stress. Broadly speaking, there are three types of active recovery:
1) Right after a workout
Active recovery during the cool-down phase of exercise may include cycling or jogging at a slower pace. As an extension of the exercise routine itself (as opposed to a cooling-down session), the goal is to keep the heart rate above the resting rate, and can include yoga, rowing, or even brisk walking. Do this for 20 to 45 minutes.
2) During interval training
Rather than sitting between intervals, switching up your HIIT session with low- to moderate-intensity exercises like high-knees, planks, and lunges can help mitigate the build-up of lactic acid while keeping your heart rate up.
3) Days following extreme activity
Instead of taking days off after big sporting events like a marathon or Spartan Race, yin yoga, foam rolling or motion exercises using light weights can fend off that dreaded sluggishness and soreness. Aim for exercises that brings your heart rate up to less than 50 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Anything that pushes your MHR above 80 percent will put you into an anaerobic state, which is counter-effective as it speeds up the production of lactic acid.
If you’re not keen on hitting the gym again, using this opportunity to work on flexibility will not only help you work though muscle stiffness, but also increase your range of motion and improve posture. Finding an easy yoga flow or doing dynamic stretches (holding moves for one to two seconds instead of 30 seconds) is a good way of achieving all these. Those who want to hit the outdoors can choose to jog, swim, or cycle at a slower pace too.
Besides increasing blood flow (and hence amino acids and oxygen) to your muscles and tissues when they need it the most, active recovery also flushes out waste products like lactic acid and hydrogen ions that contribute to muscle fatigue. According to the Public Library of Science, doing 20 minutes of post-exercise active recovery that works the same muscles you just trained reduces fatigue more effectively than passive recovery. There’s also a marked improvement in endurance for those who replace complete rest days with activities like climbing and hiking.
Being able to dial it down occasionally is also a refreshing mental break from intense training. That said, there’s nothing wrong with listening to your body and giving it a total break when it’s screaming for one, so indulge in the occasional couch-day with plenty of sleep if you really need to.