Back when I was competing at an elite level of marathon and triathlon, we paid lip service to rest and recovery, but recovery looked mostly like lying on the couch for hours on end with a gallon of ice cream resting on my chest. I poured all my energy into training sessions such that I had nothing left in the tank on off days. Even basic household chores were a big ask.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have made more of an effort to move on my off days, incorporating more active recovery instead of the passive, frankly slothful recovery I favored at the time.
I suspect even the average fitness buff now understands that the real fitness gains don’t happen in the gym or on the track; they happen during the recovery period. You get stronger, fitter, faster thanks to the processes the body undertakes to repair damage caused by exercise and to prepare for your next bout. However, I still see athletes at all levels from general fitness enthusiasts to weekend warrior endurance athletes to high-level competitors resisting recovery. They feel guilty on days they don’t train. When they’re too busy to hit the gym, or accumulated soreness or fatigue forces them to take a day off, they worry that they’re losing all their hard-won gains.
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. It’s usually better to keep moving on recovery days. You can and should hit the gym or hop on your bike between workouts, provided you move at a far lower intensity.
What is Active Recovery
When people extol the virtues of active recovery, they are actually referring to three different things:
- Recovering between sets or reps within a single workout. Think walking between sprint repetitions to bring your heart rate down instead of sitting down on the track.
- Recovering at the end of a workout, as in an extended cooldown. For example, doing an easy spin on a stationary bike and a few minutes of dynamic stretching to end your sprint session.
- Using movement on your off days—days you don’t have a formal training session planned—to enhance recovery.
We’ll focus on the latter today, but the goal of all three is fundamentally the same. Exercise creates tissue damage and burns through fuel, including intramuscular glycogen. That physical damage and the process of cellular metabolism create byproducts like lactate in the muscles and bloodstream 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 training session with more vigor.
Active recovery workouts also provide a welcome break from narrowly focused training regimens. Most athletes complain that they don’t have time to do all the “other stuff” they know they should be doing—cross-training, foam rolling, mobility work. Active recovery days are made for these kinds of activities. They also let you take a mental break from focusing on rep schemes, progressive overload, threshold pacing, and all the other intricacies of training.
As you’ll see, even calling them “workouts” is something of a misnomer, depending on the types of activities you choose. By and large, active recovery just means you avoid being sedentary on your off days. Almost any low-intensity, low-stress movement goes. As long as you make a point of moving your body beyond the tasks of daily living, you’re probably checking the active recovery box.
How Often Should You Participate in Active Recovery?
Serious athletes probably have coaches programming weekly or monthly training blocks for them, hopefully with active rest days built in, along with dedicated deload weeks and periods of reduced training intensity throughout the year. For everyone else, consider all your “non-training” days dedicated to active recovery.
The Primal Blueprint Fitness recommendations are two, maybe three, dedicated resistance workouts (lifting heavy things) a week, plus one sprint session every seven to ten days. You might do a long hike on the weekend or throw a couple rucks into the mix. All the other days would be active recovery days.
Don’t overthink it. I’ve never been a fan of rigid weekly schedules for Primal folks anyway, not even Primal endurance athletes. It’s far better to go by intuition. Open up the throttle when you’re feeling highly motivated, but otherwise simply commit to avoiding sedentary lifestyle patterns. This only works, though, if you let go of ego attachment 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 achy and tired, so I’m going to take another active recovery day,” instead of, “I should be better by now, time to hit the gym.”
Active Recovery Workouts
The general recommendation for active recovery workouts is to keep your recovery workouts at a low to moderate intensity, going no harder than 60 to 70 percent of your max heart rate. I don’t find max heart rate targets particularly useful because few people know their true max heart rate, but you can use RPE (rate of perceived exertion) as a proxy. Keep your effort at or below a 7, and you’ll be good. Lower is fine, too. Some of these activities will barely get you above a 1 or 2 RPE.
It won’t surprise you to learn that walking is my number one active recovery priority. Just get as many steps in as you can. Try a walking workout on days when you have a little more to give. Pause periodically during your walk to do some step-ups on a park bench, hang from a tree branch, or do a set of ass-to-grass squats.
Light cardio such as easy jogging, swimming, biking, or using a machine at the gym can be great for active recovery. Just monitor your intensity.
You have two options here. One, you can target the muscles you most recently worked. For example, you could jog the day after doing hard mile repeats or hitting the squat rack. Or, you can use this time for cross-training (runners might swim, for example). Both have their merits. It just depends on your goal for a given session.
Tai chi, qigong, yoga
Gentle movement practices are ideal for moving your body through a wide range of motion, connecting to your breath, and working on balance, both literally and figuratively. They improve vagal tone, meaning you get greater activation of the parasympathetic “rest-digest-repair” nervous system. Most of us run around in a state of high stress and high alert such that the sympathetic (“fight-flight-freeze”) nervous system predominates. Chronic exercise patterns contribute to sympathetic (over)activation. Gentle movement can help restore homeostasis and bring us back to a state of calm readiness.
This is one you can do every day whether or not you have a heavy workout planned. Be like my pal Brad Kearns and start your day with a dynamic morning stretching routine. He does this every single morning to loosen up stiff tissues and get the blood flowing.
Use a foam roller or other massage tool to target areas of stiffness or soreness. I particularly like to combine self-myofascial release with dynamic stretching.
Light resistance training
An active recovery day is a good time to target areas of weakness or poor mobility. Runners often have disproportionately weak glutes relative to their quads and hamstrings, for example. Folks who work at a computer have tight pectoral muscles and exhibit so-called tech neck, so they benefit from releasing and strengthening the upper back.
I like resistance bands and minibands for this. Light dumbbells, kettlebells, and bodyweight exercises like the Primal Essential Movements are also good choices. You can do a short workout session, again watching the RPE, or drop in microworkouts throughout the day. You may be tempted to avoid areas that you worked the day before, but targeting those muscles increases circulation and enhances recovery. Pick a lighter weight and focus on range of motion, going as slowly as you need to nail the quality of your movements.
This is a technique that I learned from Joel Jamieson of 8 Weeks Out. Tempo intervals involve 10 seconds of moderate-intensity (RPE 7, no more) work followed by one minute of easy recovery. You can do this on a stationary bike, elliptical machine, jogging, jumping rope, jumping jacks—any kind of exercise where you can control your effort. I’ll do eight to ten reps, followed by some stretching and maybe a dip in my cold plunge or a sauna session.
Does This Mean You Should Never Take Total Rest Days?
It’s great to give yourself time to rest (passive recovery) and enjoy total leisure sometimes. However, if you’re working out so hard on your exercise days that you can barely drag yourself off the couch on rest days, I’m going to suggest that you’re overdoing it. That’s how I operated back in my competitive days, and it darn near broke me. This “push yourself to the brink, then crash” cycle is still glorified in the conventional sport and fitness worlds, but unless you’re getting paid to compete, you don’t need to be putting your body through all that.
It’s rare that I have a day where I don’t move much at all, not even going for a morning walk on the beach or hopping on my fat tire bike for 30 minutes in the afternoon to give myself time to ideate on a post. And I don’t think most people need to intentionally build in passive recovery days, either. The exception is people who are flirting with—or deep in the throes of—overtraining or burnout. If you’ve already crossed the line into true burnout, you may need weeks or even months of complete rest before slowly getting back to exercising.
As long as your exercise stays on the right side of healthy, though, you generally don’t need total rest days. That said, even “reasonable” levels of exercise can drain you if you’re close to running on empty due to significant life stress, other health issues, or poor sleep. The best course of action is always to listen to your body.
A Final Word Caution
Don’t let the concept of active recovery become a way of sneaking in more exercise and avoiding rest! “Today is an active recovery day, so I’ll just do a 60-minute power yoga class at 5 AM and then ruck a few miles after work. But no running!” Fitness culture has created a real phobia of taking days off, but you can’t go go go all the time. Don’t cheat yourself here. If your recovery workouts leave you feeling tired or depleted, you’re not managing effort effectively. Dial it back even more. You should feel more energized after active recovery workouts, not less.
Lastly, it should go without saying that all of these active recovery techniques will work better if you support your efforts with good nutrition, hydration, and sleep.
All right, lay it on me. Tell me your favorite recovery protocols, tools, and activities.
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