What is an Active Recovery Workout and How is it Beneficial?
As athletes and fitness enthusiasts, our work ethic towards exercise follows a common philosophy: train hard and you’ll see results. Most driven athletes are used to and even look forward to strenuous training. This includes obstacle athletes, who participate in a sport that’s founded on a series of challenges combined with running over various terrain.
To prepare for the challenges of any obstacle, you target your workouts to meet your goals, which can be demanding with running, CrossFit-like training, etc.
In order to prepare your body for an intense workout, you warm-up before and cool down after workouts. You know a warm-up and cool-down may help delay soreness as well as improve range of motion and mobility. This will also help you optimize performance for your future training sessions.
But after consecutive days of training, the wear and tear your body endures may call for an extended recovery, with a focus on flexibility, mobility, and repair beyond the warm-up and cool-down. An effective training program requires a structured recovery period just as much as a vigorous workout sequence. Hence the need for active recovery.
Let’s go over the what, why, how, and when of active recovery.
Active Recovery: What it Is & What it Isn’t
First and foremost, an active recovery goes beyond not doing anything at all. During an active recovery week, your workouts will focus on less intense activity to give your tired muscles a break from heavy lifting, intense circuits, and other vigorous training methods. Instead of performing cleans or running sprints, you’ll be doing leg swings, single leg squats, and other dynamic flexibility and core exercises. This will rest both your mind and muscles from intense training.
The Benefits of Active Recovery: The Why
Active recovery has several benefits. By taking some time to scale back regularly, you’ll reach the following results:
- Prevent overtraining. Consecutive weeks of intense workouts will take a toll on you and your body, placing you at risk for overtraining syndrome. Taking some time to take it down a notch may help prevent plateaus, tiredness, and other drawbacks associated with overtraining.
- Prevent injuries. Vigorous training, although important to improve performance, can put you at risk for injury after weeks without taking a break. Taking some time to taper down will help keep injuries at bay
- Reinforce and improve flexibility & mobility. Devoting additional time to static stretches, foam rolling, and dynamic flexibility will go a long way towards keeping you limber, boosting your mobility, and improving your posture.
- Give your mind a rest. Your mind exerts a lot of energy in efforts to endure tough training sessions: from executing a single rep max to gathering the toughness to get through a metabolic circuit. An extended break from rigorous training will rest your mind and central nervous system.
How to Recover: Six Common Components of Active Recovery
Overall, active recovery provides you with an opportunity to focus on flexibility and mobility. Incorporating a few of the components below will help you address this focus.
1. Self-Myofascial Release (SMFR)
Self-Myofascial Release (SMFR), accomplished through foam rolling, allows you to target the connective tissue that organize muscle fibers. Sometimes when muscles become very tight, the connective tissue that organize them tighten up as well. Self-myofascial release has a similar impact as a deep muscle tissue massage, rolling out tender connective tissue and muscles. This will help enhance flexibility and mobility.
Static stretches and dynamic flexibility exercises are also great components to add to your active recovery sessions. Static stretching will help you address tight areas, re-establishing appropriate length-tension relationships. Dynamic flexibility will help you improve your range of motion.
3. Basic core and bodyweight exercises
To keep stimulating some of the muscle groups you’ve been working during your intense training sessions, you can incorporate core and bodyweight equivalents of exercises you’ve been completing as part of your resistance training program. Bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, squats, lunges, supermans, and others are some great exercises worth including during your recovery week, just don’t overdue things of course.
4. Leisure activity
Engaging in a leisure activity during an active recovery day will have a cross-training effect on your exercise program. Since running, strength, core, and metabolic training characterize an obstacle race training program, an easy walk or hike, swim, or bike ride are all good options. Make sure it’s a low to moderate impact activity to take a break from the high intensity work you engage in for your obstacle-specific workouts.
When you’re scaling back, your workouts are typically shorter, so you should have more time on your hands. Plan to go to bed early or sleep a little later in the morning. This may also be a good time to devote to good sleep hygiene by incorporating some of the things that may make for a restful sleep for you: a long bath, chamomile tea before bedtime, and/or reading before turning in for the day.
6. Sports Massage
It’s not uncommon for some competitive distance runners and triathletes to need a sports massage every week! Although foam rolling is supposed to provide benefits similar to that of a massage, sometimes you need someone to manually work out tense muscle groups. Even if you’re a recreational athlete or occasional obstacle racer, it may not hurt to schedule a massage every 4-8 weeks. Coupled with flexibility training, a massage can help with muscle recovery and mobility.
When to Recover: Your Options
Now that you are familiar with the components of active recovery, when should you do it? There are a few options.
- 1-2 days/week. Many structured training plans include a day or two each week to focus on flexibility and mobility. Such a workout typically includes a light aerobic warm-up, SMFR, static and dynamic stretches, and basic core and bodyweight exercises.
- 1 week at a time every 4-6 weeks of training. Even with a day or two a week devoted to active recovery, sometimes you need to devote more time to rest. During an active recovery week, you can do an easy run or two and complete 2-3 sessions focused on foam rolling, static stretches, dynamic flexibility and basic core training. You can also consider scheduling a massage during this week as well.
- Incorporate both options. In the long run, the best thing to do is both. If you are working out 5-6 days a week, try to make one session an active recovery one. If you’ve been working out several days a week for up to six weeks, it may be time to set aside a full week for recovery.
All athletes need a recovery day and week every now and then. What you do is up to you, but in general, incorporating SMFR, static stretches, dynamic flexibility, basic core and bodyweight exercises as well as massage can make for an effective active recovery session or week. As an athlete, you are familiar with listening to your body’s cues. Pay attention and discover what’s best for you!