In your mind, you may think, "I gotta hit the gym every day to get in shape." However this thought may end up being more detrimental than productive, as overtraining can cause a variety of setbacks.
Hitting the gym (or wherever you get your exercise) four or five days a week can be a good thing, but for your body to actually become stronger, you have to let your muscles, tendons and ligaments repair themselves. This doesn't mean you should become a couch potato all day (although there is nothing wrong with that from time to time, as passive rest is beneficial as well.) Sandwiching a couple days of active recovery into your weekly schedule will help you see more benefits in your health and wellness goals.
So what exactly is active recovery? And more importantly, why do we need it?
There are actually two types of active recovery. The first is during the cool-down phase of your intense workout before the resting phase. A simple five-minute walk can help the body transition from 100 mph to zero. An active recovery workout/activity day is engaging in low-intensity, low-impact exercise that helps with the body's healing process after a workout period. For the average gym goer, a weekly schedule will include at least 1-2 days for each upper- and lower-body day, plus a full-body day and then a cardio day. That takes up roughly four to six days of your week. If you are on the high end of that schedule, more than likely you are fitting a rest day in between or at the end of your week. Adding a day of active recovery will give your body a chance to rest and repair itself.
Active recovery workouts are low- to moderate-intensity activities that are often completely different than what your normal workout may entail. If you are a basketball player, instead of hitting the weights and working on your plyometrics (in addition to your jump shot), you may use your active recovery days to work on your flexibility through a yoga or Pilates class. For a marathon runner, going for an easy bike ride or a swim can still work your legs, but provide an impact-free workout that your muscles and joints will appreciate.
Active recovery days can also provide a much needed mental refocusing and stress relief. For some people going to the gym is a way to burn off steam and escape the stresses of the day, but for others training can come with its own set of demands, both mentally and physically. Taking the time to slow things down can help you clear your mind and reset your priorities and goals. Overtraining your body can do a lot more damage than good. Extended muscle soreness, a depleted immune system, decreased energy during workouts, poor sleep and moodiness can all lead to potential injury, not to mention lack of enjoyment for exercise.
Active Recovery Options
Yoga and Pilates - Focuses on flexibility, breathing and mental/spiritual wellness. Bodyweight exercises and lengthening/straightening your body through either form of exercise can help prevent injury, strengthen your core and improve your posture and balance.
Swimming - Water pressure can help improve the blood circulation in the heart, blood vessels and muscles. A low-impact activity, swimming can assist with active stretching and flushing out of the lactic acid throughout the body.
Biking - As with hitting the pool, biking is a great exercise that is low impact and can vary in intensity. Whether it is a stationary or outdoor ride, biking is a cardio exercise that can elevate your heart rate to varying levels depending on your desire.
Walking/Hiking - Going for a 30- to 60-minute walk a couple of times a week is a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the world. Whether you throw on a pair of headphones to escape or just enjoy the sounds of nature around you, the fresh air of the beach, park or mountains can have a positive impact on your physical and mental well-being.
Self-Myofascial Release - Foam rolling, stick rolling or ball rolling, any method of self (or assisted) massaging of achy muscles can go a long way to help recover. This inexpensive form of physical therapy can also assist with improving your range of motion or help ease sore muscles following a workout or sporting activity.
One of the biggest challenges that people face when performing active recovery exercises is over-doing their activity/workout. Thinking "oh, I can run up this hill faster" or "I can pedal harder" takes away all purpose of letting your body rest and repair itself. Although you could very well run or pedal harder and faster, in doing so, you are actually doing more damage than good. One of the biggest benefits of active recovery is maintaining the momentum of exercising. Although the activity isn't challenging (for most), the ability to maintain a mental state of exercise and movement on your "off days" makes getting back into the gym that much easier.
Although we are usually focused on training for at least 60-90 minutes, the great thing about active recovery is that it can be short (as little as 30 minutes) and you can change things up whenever you want. If you feel like trying paddle-boarding, go for it. On your next active recovery day, if your family wants to go for a bike ride, great. Letting your body recover and experience something different from the intense mental and physical beating that it takes during your regular workout schedule, will be a welcomed feeling and will go a long way toward helping get you back in the gym refreshed and ready to grind out another intense workout.
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