“Go-go-go” is the mantra of everyday life these days—and it can be easy to get caught up in a similar attitude when it comes to your workout routine. Indeed, people would love to see results as soon as possible when they start working out, and what better way to accelerate results than by working out for hours on end every day, right? Not so fast.
You see, the changes that our bodies make after working are called “adaptations.” The workout itself is termed a “stimulus.” You can give yourself all the stimuli in the world, but if you don’t allow an adaptation period to happen, you’re not going to make progress. In more colloquial terms: You make progress while you’re recovering from your workout. The workout itself simply stimulates that progress. And if you don’t give yourself any time to recover, you end up hammering yourself into the ground.
The fitness industry has slowly started to recognize this problem and many professionals now advocate for multiple rest days every week. I would certainly agree that rest days are a great thing; however, I know some folks feel antsy about cutting out movement on any given day. For this routine-minded bunch—and all exercise enthusiasts, for that matter—there is another choice: active recovery.
What is Active Recovery?
Active recovery is a targeted form of activity designed to promote recovery, rather than an additional stimulus for adaptation.
The physiology works like this: When we exercise enough to stimulate adaptation, our body goes into recovery mode following the workout. Generally, our muscles will signal that they need to be repaired and re-filled with energy. In response, our body ramps up its protein-making machinery and also improves its efficiency at delivering nutrients to those muscles and storing them. A few hours after your workout, these signals start to die down. However, your recovery period isn’t over yet. In fact, it just started!
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This is where active recovery can come in. The goal here is to move enough to ramp some of these recovery signals back up without causing any of the damage or energy depletion that your harder workouts induced. Therefore, you boost recovery without increasing the need for recovery. That’s how you make progress!
What Active Recovery Looks Like
Since active recovery, in a physiological sense at least, is pretty important for someone looking to improve their fitness, let’s go over what exactly it might look like.
1. Walking or hiking
Walking or hiking is a super-easy form of active recovery and will definitely be the least stressful. It’ll also be particularly useful after a strenuous leg day. A 20- to 30-minute walk will be enough to increase your heart rate, warm your sore muscles, and reduce your soreness. It’ll also help reinvigorate the recovery process within those hardworking legs so you can progress your squats the next time you train.
Yoga is one of my favorites here because it combines active recovery with mindfulness and stress management. From a physical perspective, yoga is often a unique challenge for many athletes, so including it in your training plan can absolutely enhance performance. It also has an interesting effect on metabolism, with some studies suggesting yoga helps us better absorb carbohydrates and other nutrients into our muscles as well as lose body fat.
The mental benefits of yoga include its ability to improve the hormonal milieu in your body to a mixture that better supports recovery, rather than breakdown. For example, research has shown that yoga increases nighttime production of the calming sleep hormone melatonin. Restful sleep is important for lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and promoting optimal recovery.
Yes, playing with your dog, your kids, or even in a recreational sports league is a great form of active recovery. This will get you moving, sweating a bit, and also having fun. After all, what good is a strong and healthy body if you don’t use it to play? Having fun with physical movement is a fantastic way to keep you motivated in your fitness journey, so I always encourage folks to take the time to play.
A Note On Nutrition
While it’s not an active recovery “activity,” per se, I do strongly recommend ensuring that your nutrition and supplementation are on point on training-free days. Three boxes to check:
- ample hydration (aim for 2.5 to three liters of water per day)
- optimal protein intake (1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day)
- sufficient carbohydrates to support your training (two to four grams per kilogram of body weight per day for most folks)
If your diet lacks diversity, taking a multivitamin and multimineral supplement can also be beneficial in ensuring that you’re getting the most out of your nutrition plan. You might also incorporate a protein supplement if that intake recommendation seems a little out of reach.
And since you ramp up the recovery process every time you consume protein, I’d make sure you’re getting some in about every three or four hours or so.
How to Implement Active Recovery Days
Of course, knowing the ins and outs of active recovery does you no good if you’re not sure how to include it in your training plan. Let’s assume you perform structured exercise four days per week. That gives you three dedicated rest days. I’d start by switching one of those rest days into an active recovery day, using that schedule for a few weeks, and seeing how your body responds. If you feel good, switch another one over! I usually recommend keeping at least one day per week as a full rest day because I think it’s sometimes important to take a mental and physical break from training. Then training is that much more fun when you get back to it!
The Bottom Line
Active recovery refers to any structured routine in which you’re performing an activity with the goal of recovery, rather than breakdown. Light walking or hiking, playing, and yoga are all great exercises to turn to on active recovery days. Of course, make sure your nutrition is optimized to support all of your recovery and training needs.