Understanding Active Recovery and its Importance in a Properly Structured Training Program

Understanding Active Recovery and its Importance in a Properly Structured Training Program

In my 12-part training science article series I explain in detail how the best endurance training results come when there is highly skewed balance toward low-intensity "capacity" training versus too much focus on high-intensity training. This approach has stood the test of time in endurance sports, and it doesn’t matter whether the endurance sport is rowing, cross-country skiing, cycling, track, or running etc… the same training balance invariably wins out at the highest level.

This is not to say high-intensity training doesn't have its place, it certainly is a requirement in any appropriately planned and successful training program. A caution arises because high-intensity training is so effective at increasing fitness it becomes highly seductive to overuse it, but at the same time is so demanding on the muscles of the body, that its use has to be carefully applied for the sake of an athlete's long-term health. 

The way we get faster and stronger is by applying a hard stress stimulus that forces the body to create an adaption to be better able to handle that stress in future. That is why for athletes to progress they must run faster, ride longer, or lift heavier weights to improve. However, knowing when to apply this stress and when to back off is an equation that many athletes fail to get right. Those that do rise to the top.

There are effectively no elite athletes at the highest level who train at a high-intensity most of the time. Ultimately, if they did, they would quickly suffer the ill effects of overtraining syndrome trying to meet the volume of training required to make the metabolic and muscular adaptations needed to compete at the highest level. Mentally it can also become exhausting as well.

High-intensity exercise also causes a lot of stress to the body, but this stress is actually needed for the body to rebuild itself stronger and make increases in fitness. Fitness doesn't increase during training, it increases during the body's adaptative recovery phase in the 24-48 hours following intensive training. The body can only adapt when its given the chance to adapt, so we must also include rest time. Traditionally, the concept of resting involved passive rest; doing nothing at all physically. However, many endurance athletes and their coaches discovered that they tend to recover faster when they kept moving between hard training sessions rather than just having a block of time off, but it must be light enough that it doesn't impose any added stress on a tired body.

This activity has a name: "Active Recovery" and is now a scientifically proven way to expedite the process which the body returns back to pre-training levels of function and performance. It does so because it aids in recovery by alleviating the stress placed on the cardiovascular system, muscles, joints and connective tissues. Some of the scientifically determined benefits of active recovery include:

1. Increased Blood Flow and Reduced Inflammation. Promoting blood flow to joints and muscles helps to lessen inflammation and to transport nutrients (amino acids and oxygen) to your muscles so they can repair themselves. 

2. Toxin Elimination (hydrogen ions and lactic acid) and Reducing Soreness. Studies show that active recovery exercise helps to reduce post-exercise discomfort and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). According to research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, athletes who utilise active recovery experience lower lactic acid concentrations than those who didn't. Blood lactate accumulation during intense exercise results in an increase in hydrogen ions throughout the body, that can lead to muscle contraction and fatigue. 

3. Consistency. The more often you do something the easier it becomes to maintain the habit. Performing active recovery on down days keeps the momentum going in your training program making it more difficult to quit (your mind wants to go on the path of least resistance, its why its hard to start a new exercise habit, and eventually this turns in your favour, making it hard to stop the habit once its started.)

4. Priming. Active recovery can help prepare your body for its next training day, so the muscles are less likely to be feeling "heavy", i.e. lethargic and unresponsive.

5. Mood. Daily activity helps to elevate and stabilise mood. Activey recovery days help you to stay active without burning yourself out, allowing you to constantly increase fitness from the harder training days and maintain this over an entire season or year without suffering overtraining syndrome or mental burnout.

How can you determine how fast or slow to go on a recovery effort?  Well it should feel like an effort you could sustain all day long. You should always feel better right after or within a few hours of a recovery training session, and definitely should not feel more fatigued from this session than you were going into it. 

Here’s the catch: You should be active enough to increase blood flow, but gentle enough to allow your muscles to heal. A good rule of thumb I use for my athletes is that you must be able to easily breathe through your nose during the effort (keeping your mouth closed the entire time), as this will keep you beneath your aerobic threshold. Ideally, the pace and effort level should feel to you at 1 out of 10 and definitely no more than 2 out of 10. You should also keep off really steep terrain like climbs and descents.

Don't feel embarassed about running or walking really really slow. Even elite east african marathon runners fill in their training weeks with absurdly slow active recovery shuffle runs - and they swear by them!

Always listen to what your body is telling you. An activity recovery session is typically preferred to doing nothing for optimal recovery from hard training, but you shouldn't avoid a passive recovery day if your body says that you need one. Passive recovery is important and beneficial if you’re injured or in a lot of pain, or if you're feeling mentally drained from training. If you begin an active recovery run and you're feeling really tired, lethargic, dizzy or any other non-normative symptoms and they don't improve after 10 minutes or so, then end the session and take passive recovery until these symptoms improve.

Typically, I like to include one day of passive recovery a week in most of my training weeks (not all however), and up to 2 or 3 days of active recovery a week. The rest of the days involve harder training efforts. I also include a recovery week into my training cycles every 3-4 weeks, where the volume reduces from 30-40% of the previous training week.

You can and should also include active recovery into your hard training days too. Broadly speaking, there are three forms of active recovery:

1. Cool-down phase immediately following a workout. You should always conclude hard or high-intensity training efforts with at least 15-30 minutes of low-intensity activey recovery "cool down" at the conclusion of the training session. This will help your body to clear out the accumulate waste products, making your recovery faster resulting in less post-workout pain, inflammation, stiffness and soreness.

2. During interval training between intervals themselves. Between interval efforts reduce the pace to one of active recovery so you freshen up your muscles prior to the next interval.

3. In the days following an activity that placed your body under a hard level of stress (races, high-intensity sessions, long-runs etc...)

In summary: Active recovery allows an athlete to recover, both physically and psychologically, from the stresses of training. It is an integral part in the Couch to the Summit Performance Coaching training methodology. If you would like to learn more please read my Training Science article series and also check out my Performance Coaching page for more information on what I offer as a coach and how I can help you achieve your ultimate fitness potential.

Related Posts