You spent your Saturday morning doing what all endurance junkies love: hitting the road, trails, treadmill, or track for hours. You went long and hard, which means you should spend your Sunday doing what most non-sweat-obsessed people do –sleep in, take a bunch of naps, and try to stay as close to the couch as possible, right?
Not necessarily. Here’s why.
What is active recovery?
Active recovery is exercising at a low intensity level with the purpose of getting blood flow to your muscles and helping them recover. So while a passive recovery approach would mean the aforementioned “Netflix and nap,” doing something active – like a walk, light stretching, or an easy swim – may actually speed up the recovery process.
“Science has suggested that actively moving at a low level the day after a harder intensity effort stimulates blood flow and pushes lactate and other waste away from the muscle, helping accelerate recovery,” says Mary Johnson, a USATF Level 1 certified coach and the owner of Lift.Run.Perform.
How do you know how hard to go?
“Active recovery should keep you at a 4 on a 1–10 rate of perceived effort scale,” says Johnson. “Your heart rate shouldn’t go much higher than zone 1 or 2, or around 50–70 percent of your max.”
“An active recovery day should feel light and rejuvenating,” says Johnson.
Who needs active recovery days?
The short, enthusiastic answer: everyone. The longer answer: anyone who has hard, big efforts built into a training plan or workout routine. “I recommend active recovery because it not only accelerates the muscular adaptation process, but it’s also a great psychological break as well,” says Johnson.
it not only accelerates the muscular adaptation process, but it’s also a great psychological break as well
“If you’re trying to balance higher intensity days with recovery days, chances are you enjoy being active in general. So being able to move around and just have fun is a nice break from worrying about splits, paces, and mileage. Active recovery days almost act as a reward.”
So even though the last thing you may want to do the day after a long run is sit on a stationary bike for 45 minutes, you just may feel better afterward.
The case for a light swim vs. a long nap
If you’re spending a few days a week slamming out reps on the track, hammering out hill repeats, and generally spending a lot of time with an intentionally elevated heart rate, your body is going to build up stress (and lactic acid).
So while it may feel really rewarding to earn a day of total rest – and those are important, too – active recovery can help promote recovery and flush out some of the soreness you’re feeling. But it’s important to find the balance between active recovery and junk miles.
Tailor your recovery TO you
When it comes to scheduling active and passive recovery days, Johnson tailors her athletes’ plans – and the recovery they demand – to each particular person.
“It comes down to someone’s training level and injury history,” she says. “If an athlete who has only been running for a few years comes to me with an activity they already enjoy doing – like tennis or karate – I’ll happily replace recovery miles with that activity. At the end of the week, sure, their mileage might be a little lower, but they’re getting exposure to all planes of movement – the sagittal plane, frontal plane, and transverse plane – and are probably having fun while doing it. So the physiological and psychological benefits far outweigh the potential detriment of yet another easy run, for example.”
But, Johnson says, if an athlete has been training for years and can handle a decent load – and can truly understand what active recovery feels like – she’ll add a 30–45-minute recovery jog to the plan the day after a hard track session or tempo run. From an injury perspective, though, she says the key is education.
“There needs to be a lot of coaching and education involved when it comes to working with an athlete who has been injured,” Johnson says. “You really need to understand how light an active recovery day really is. And depending on the injury, an athlete may do better with a recovery day that doesn’t include running.”
Ultimately, not every recovery day should be an active one – but don’t discount them altogether. And total rest – as in, yes, Netflix and nap – should definitely be built into your routine, too. (You’re welcome, and enjoy.)
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.