About active recovery

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PASSIVE rest should be pretty easy to understand, on a passive rest day you do nothing. No training at all. Some might allow for something like a brisk walk.

But basically this is a day completely off. Sit around, do nothing, relax, recover. In contrast, active rest (aka active recovery) refers to a workout done at a reduced intensity and volume of loading (relative to a normal workout). So a road cyclist might do an easy 45 minute spin on the bike at a heart rate of 130 beats per minute.

A weightlifter might use a light day of training, at 75% of maximum for sets of three-five (noting that 75% of maximum is a weight you could generally do 10-12 reps to failure with so this is very sub-maximal) as an active rest day.

Fundamentally, active rest is just meant to be a light-easy training day. There are two forms of active recovery. One is during the cool-down phase immediately after a hard effort or workout. The second form of active recovery includes the days following a competition or other intense workout.

Research is growing on the benefits of both types of active recovery.

One study published in Medicine&Science in Sports and Exercise found that:

  •  Active recovery immediately after the event encourages recovery and reduces muscle lactate levels faster than complete rest. After hard intervals, one group rested completely while a second group exercised at 30% intensity between intervals. The active group reduced blood lactate levels faster and could achieve a higher power output throughout the workout.

Another study found that:

  • Adding low intensity exercise to the rest period after competition did not decrease an athlete’s physical recovery and actually had positive effects on psychological recovery by improving relaxation.

A third study found active recovery encouraged lactic acid removal and helped speed recovery.

  • The general theory is low-intensity activity assists blood circulation which, in turn, helps remove lactic acid from the muscle. Low-intensity active recovery appears to significantly reduce accumulated blood lactate and speed muscle recovery. However, all agree that more study is necessary to establish a clear answer regarding the best way to recover from intense exercise.

The Goal of active rest

As coaches and athletes came to the early realisation that they couldn’t just train at 100% day-in, day-out without blowing up, the idea of having harder and lighter days came into vogue.

At least in the endurance world, the hard day-easy day approach is usually attributed to Bill Bowerman of Oregon. Other sports including weightlifting found out early on that alternating harder and easier days helped avoid problems and this eventually evolved into various cycling schemes (including the fairly popular heavy/light/medium approach).

Eventually, this idea was taken a bit further and easy days were taken to be active recovery days. It is often argued that active recovery days sort of “stimulate the metabolic pathways of recovery” without contributing fatigue; basically it helps you to recover more quickly. In some sports, it’s often argued that active recovery training helps to repair damage from high-intensity days.

This seems to be the most prevalent in swimming theory where concern about metabolic damage from acidosis (which occurs during high-intensity swim training) can be countered with recovery or regeneration training. Basically, you repair any damage to things like mitochondria with lots of recovery swimming.
Rules of active rest

I am going to assume that you are incorporating active recovery workouts and I am going to assume that you have the self-control to keep them under control. Here are the rules of an active recovery workout:

  • Volume should be ½-⅔ of a normal workout, for athletes this is your LSD.

l Intensity should be perhaps 60% maximum heart rate for endurance athletes and up to 75% of 1RM for weight trainers.

  •   You should finish the workout feeling better than you started.

So say you’re an endurance athlete and your normal workout is currently an hour. An active recovery workout for you might be 90 minutes (3/2rds of your normal volume) at a HR of 120-130 (60-70% of maximum). Some will push this up to the very lowest level of aerobic conditioning (130-140 HR for most activities) but even that may be pushing it.

If your typical workout were longer, your active recovery workout might be similarly long. So if you normally go for one hour, active recovery is 1hr 30mins to about an hour 20 or so. For weight trainers, the same basic idea holds although there are more options since intensity can be varied in more ways.

The percentages can either apply to the load on the bar (e.g. work at 60-70/75% of maximum), total reps done relative to maximum or both.

So an Olympic lifter who normally works in the 85-90% range for doubles might do light triples at 70% of maximum for a handful of sets. A powerlifter might do something similar, doubles or triples with 60%-70% of maximum for a few quick sets (almost speed work, but don’t even think about using bands or chains).

And let me reiterate point three again: ideally you should finish the active recovery workout feeling better than you started. At very least you should feel no more tired when you are done. If you have increased your level of fatigue, you went too hard, too long or both.

In which case passive recovery is probably the better choice because you have poor impulse control. Finally, as noted above, some athletes like to consume a dilute carb or protein drink during active recovery workouts, the increased blood flow from training carries nutrients to worked muscles and can only help with recovery.

I would suggest perhaps 30 grammes of carbs with 10-15 grammes of a fast digesting protein (eg whey or soy) per hour of activity or so.

Enough to get some nutrients to the muscles without consuming so much that you counterbalance the caloric expenditure of the training. This nutrition for, training, competition or recovery topic is yet one other we would look at in the weeks to come.