As an elite marathoner and triathlete, we gave lip service to rest and recovery, but it mostly came down to lying on the couch with an ice cream gallon on my chest for hours on end. During training sessions, I put so much energy into them that I didn’t have any energy left on off days. Even basic household chores were challenging.
When I knew then what I know now, I would have moved more on my off days, incorporating more active recovery instead of the passive, frankly slothful recovery I preferred.
I suspect even the average fitness buff now understands that the real gains happen during the recovery period. This is when your body repairs damage caused by exercise and prepares for your next workout. A lot of athletes still don’t get it, though. They feel guilty on days they don’t train, think that they are losing their hard-won gains, or worry that a day off will lead to an injury and cause them to miss out on important nutrients.
So they’re usually happy to learn that taking days totally off isn’t necessary, or even ideal, for optimizing recovery and long-term performance. On recovery days, it’s best to keep moving. It’s fine to hit the gym or ride the bike between workouts, as long as you move at a lower intensity.
Active Recovery: What is it?
People often extol the virtues of active recovery by referring to three things:
Think about walking between sprint repetitions instead of sitting down on the track to bring your heart rate down between sets or reps.
An extended cooldown at the end of a workout, such as an easy spin on the stationary bike and some dynamic stretching at the end of a sprint.
To enhance recovery, use movement on your off days – days when you don’t have a formal training session planned.
We’ll focus on active recovery today, but the goal of all three is still the same. Exercise causes tissue damage and burns through fuel, including glycogen in your muscles. That physical damage and the process of cellular metabolism create byproducts like lactate in your muscles and blood and lead to inflammation, DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), and fatigue. Active recovery increases circulation to working tissues (delivering nutrients and speeding up the clearance of waste products), reduces soreness, and improves perceptions of fatigue so athletes are ready to hit their next workout with more vigor.
As a welcome break from narrowly focused training regimens, active recovery workouts also provide a welcome break. It’s a common complaint among athletes that they don’t have enough time for cross-training, foam rolling, and mobility exercises. Active recovery days are made for these kinds of activities. You can also take a mental break from rep schemes, progressive overload, threshold pacing, and all the other intricacies of training by doing them.
According to your choice of activities, even calling them workouts is a misnomer. Active recovery is essentially just avoiding being sedentary on your off days. You can move your body beyond the tasks of daily living as long as you make a point of doing so. Almost any low-intensity, low-stress movement is fine.
Active Recovery: How Often Should You Participate?
A serious athlete probably has a coach who plans out weekly and monthly training blocks, with active rest days, deload weeks, and reduced intensity training periods built in. For everyone else, consider all your “non-training” days to be active recovery days.
Two, perhaps three, dedicated resistance workouts (lifting heavy things) a week are recommended by Primal Blueprint Fitness, along with a sprint session every seven to ten days. On weekends, you might go for a long hike or a couple of rucks. The rest of the week would be active recovery.
Don’t overthink it. I’ve never been a fan of rigid weekly schedules, so they’re not recommended for Primal people either—not even Primal athletes. It’s far better to go by intuition. Open up the throttle when you’re highly motivated and take a day off if needed. All this will only work if you let yourself off the hook and reject the prevailing “go hard or go home” fitness mentality. You have to be willing to say “Yeah, I know my race was five days ago, but I’m still feeling dragging, so it’s going to be an active recovery day for me.”
Workouts for active recovery
In general, active recovery workouts should be kept at a low to moderate intensity, no higher than 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Since few people are aware of their true max heart rate, I don’t find max heart rate targets particularly useful, but you can use RPE as a proxy. It’s fine to keep your effort below a 7 for these activities. Lower is fine too. Some of these activities will barely raise your RPE to a 1.
Taking a walk
Getting as many steps in as possible is my top active recovery priority. Try a walking workout on days when you feel like you’ve got more to give. While walking, stop periodically to do a set of step-ups on a park bench, hang from a tree branch, or do an ass-to-grass squat.
Cardio workouts that are easy
Cardio exercises such as light jogging, swimming, biking, or using a gym machine can be great for active recovery.
Two options exist here: one, you can target the muscles you have just worked on. For example, you could run the day after hitting the squat rack or doing hard mile repeats. Or, you can use this time for cross-training (runners may swim, for example). Both have their merits. It just depends on what you want to accomplish during a particular workout.
Yoga, tai chi, and qigong
The practice of gentle movement is really ideal for people who want to move their body through a wide range of motion. Gentle movement practices work on balance, both figuratively and literally. Gentle movement improves vagal tone, or the parasympathetic nervous system which when activated we are not in a state of high stress and high alert. Most people spend their day running around in a state of high stress and high alerts and this can lead to chronic exercise patterns. When we call upon the natural restoration through gentle movement, it can help quiet our mind.
Be like Brad Kearns and stretch every morning, regardless of whether you have a heavy workout planned. He does this every single morning to loosen up stiff tissues and get the blood pumping.
Release of myofascial tension by yourself
Use a foam roller or other massage tool to target stiffness or soreness. I particularly enjoy combining self-myofascial release with dynamic stretching.
Training with light resistance
It is a good idea to focus on your weaknesses or poor mobility on an active recovery day. For example, runners often have weak glutes compared to their quads and hamstrings. It is beneficial for people who work at a computer to release and strengthen their upper backs since they have tight pectoral muscles and tech neck.
I recommend using resistance bands and minibands for this. Light dumbbells, kettlebells, and bodyweight exercises like the Primal Essential Movements are also good choices. For a short workout session, watch your RPE, or add in microworkouts throughout the day. You might be tempted to avoid areas you worked yesterday, but targeting those muscles increases circulation and enhances recovery. Pick a lighter weight and make sure to focus on range of motion; take as much time as you need to nail the quality of your movements.
Intervals of tempo
Joel Jamieson of 8 Weeks Out taught me this technique. Tempo intervals involve ten seconds of moderately intense work followed by one minute of easy recovery. You can do this on a stationary bike, elliptical machine, jogging, jumping rope, jumping jacks—any type of exercise where you can control your effort. Eight to ten reps will be done, followed by stretching and maybe a dip in the cold plunge or sauna.
What Does This Mean? Should You Never Take Total Rest Days?
Some days, you need to give yourself a break and enjoy total leisure. Then there are the days when you work so hard on exercise that you can barely get up off the couch at rest. If this is happening to you, I’d recommend taking it easy. I would take it easy back in my competitive days and my body would just break down. It took me awhile to realize this “push yourself to the brink then crash” cycle is glorified in the conventional sport and fitness worlds, but unless you’re being paid to compete, don’t put your body through it.
On most days, I don’t move a lot at all. Not even in the morning when I go for a walk on the beach, or in the afternoon by riding my fat tire bike for 30 minutes. The exception is when someone is flirting with—or has committed to—extreme training or burnout. If you’ve already crossed the line and entered the realm of true burnout, long periods of complete rest are likely required before slowly getting back into exercising again.
In general, you don’t need total rest days as long as you exercise on the right side of healthy. However, even “reasonable” levels of exercise can drain you if your body is nearing its limit because of significant stress, other health issues, or poor sleep. Listen to your body when exercising.
Final Words of Caution
Don’t let the term “active recovery” become a way to sneak in more exercise and avoid putting your body on rest. For example, “Today is an active recovery day, so I’ll just do a 90-minute CrossFit class at 7 AM, then hike a few miles after work.” Fitness culture has created a real phobia of taking days off. But you can’t go go go all the time. Keep your overall training load low enough to leave room for an easy day or two every week. Ambivalence over resting could be a sign that your recovery workouts aren’t good enough: if you feel drained during or after these workouts, remember that they should help you recover instead of depleting you.
All of these active recovery techniques will work better if you support them with good nutrition, hydration, and sleep.
Let’s talk about your favorite recovery protocols, tools, and activities.