Looking to get the most out of your workout? Recovery is just as important as the exercise itself. We share the ins and outs of active recovery and why doing it right will make you stronger, better and faster.
There's a lot of debate in the fitness community about how to approach recovery from your workout.
Traditionalists say that you need to take time off between workouts, and that muscles only grow when at rest. During this "passive recovery" phase, you're supposed to focus on nutrition, sleep and hydration. But active recovery proponents believe that easier (read: lower-intensity) training should immediately follow harder (read: higher-intensity) training. This might mean alternating between high- and low-intensity intervals (i.e. a one-minute sprint followed by one-minute rest) on a treadmill, elliptical, bike or rowing machine. Slowing down every other minute will make you stronger when you speed up, because you're allowing your body and mind to recover without having to stop completely.
Ultimately, proper rest and recovery techniques are just as important as what you do when working out. "You can't keep doing high-intensity workout after high-intensity workout without suffering the consequences," says Carla Nanka-Bruce, a registered kinesiologist and certified strength and conditioning specialist in Toronto. "Recovery is essential, and it's oftentimes difficult to know when one has over-trained until it is too late."
How does active recovery work?
"During workouts, stresses are placed on the body's tissues and physiological systems," says Nanka-Bruce. "They are necessary to elicit changes in strength to our muscles, ligaments and cardiovascular system, but going overboard can lead to serious consequences, like injuries, hormonal imbalances and even digestive and sleep issues."
"Active" rest allows an athlete to physically and psychologically recover from the vigors of training while still maintaining fitness levels. It reduces lactate levels ("Lactic acid is a significant factor in fatigue," says Nanka-Bruce) and other waste products while increasing blood flow to help speed up muscle recovery.
A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise found that active recovery immediately after exercise encourages recovery and reduces muscle lactate levels faster than complete rest. After hard intervals, one group rested completely while a second group exercised at 30 percent intensity. The active group reduced blood lactate levels faster and showed better performance overall. If this all sounds too technical, take a page out of Nanka-Bruce's book: "Listen to your body and the messages it's sending you," she writes. "Change up your activities so as not to be stressing the same muscles and tendons repeatedly. If you can't perform perfect execution of an exercise that you usually can, you are at risk and demonstrating the need to recover."
Find out the best ways to practise active recovery here.