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The art of ‘active recovery’ from workouts

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Ever do a workout that leaves your muscles sore for days?

I’ve had this experience and I’m happy to say that I’ve provided this experience for many of my athletes. I’ve learned that the best thing to do on days like this is to simply move. The worst thing I can do is to lie on the couch and watch TV, so instead I go for a walk, a hike or a yoga class. I always feel so much better afterwards.  

It is possible that most of the benefits are psychological, but there are also some physiological reasons to consider active recovery. Active recovery, also called active rest, means doing sub-maximal exercise in order to promote recovery from a higher intensity workout. Active recovery is generally used in three different instances; during a workout, after a workout and in between workouts.  

When used during a workout, it might simply mean alternating high and low intensity intervals. For example, alternating sprinting for one minute and walking for one minute. In this case the walking is considered active recovery. Taking a minute to slow down between sprints will make your sprints faster, allowing you to recover without stopping completely.

After a workout, we do a cool-down as active rest. This might include some easy cardio, such as rowing or stationary cycling, or perhaps some calisthenics or stretching, which tends to feel great after a tough weightlifting session.  

In between workouts, active recovery sessions might include low-intensity cardio such as hiking or cycling. For strength training, this might mean doing some light weights at the gym.  

The research on active recovery seems to indicate that it can speed up recovery at best and, at the very least, that it does not hinder the rate of recovery. The idea is to use the affected muscles, which increases blood flow, assisting with the clearance of waste products such as lactic acid. Lactic acid appears to be a significant factor in fatigue, so clearing out the lactic acid can assist and possibly speed up muscle recovery.  

There are other advantages to active rest.  Advanced athletes might feel depressed or stagnant if they take too many days off.  For these people, getting into the gym to do some technique or skill work is a great way to get better at their sports while aiding recovery and allowing them to stay in the groove. For those seeking to lean out, consider that low-intensity fun exercise as a form of active rest is a good way to stay active and keep the body revved up without causing fatigue.

If you are planning on including some active rest in your workout program, consider the following guidelines:

Active-recovery workouts should make you feel better and not worse. Don’t give in to the temptation of going all out once you get to the gym. Keep the volume and intensity to about half of what you might usually do and have fun.

Tania Tetrault Vrga is owner and head trainer at CrossFit Winnipeg. Send questions to her at www.crossfitwinnipeg.com.

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