Conquering the gym means working out and recovering like a champ. Here’s why you should start doing active recovery sessions after those tough workouts.
The workout had been absolutely awesome.
New PRs all over the place, conditioning work beyond anything I’d ever done before, and that warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction that comes from murdering a workout.
Now, sitting in my truck after two hours of working out, I felt completely and utterly drained. All I could think about was making it home and stuffing some sort of food into my mouth and collapsing into bed for a well-deserved sleep.
But first, I had a couple things to do.
After all, I was hoping to do that awesome workout all over again tomorrow.
The Power of Active Recovery
When it comes to recovering between workouts most athletes and gym-goers go the passive recovery route. It makes sense, at least intuitively—by resting completely you give your muscles and systems the best possible chance to recover as quickly as possible.
With passive recovery we take our post-workout shake, collapse into the couch, and call it a day. We sit there and wait for the soreness and fatigue to pass. And eventually, it does.
Active recovery, on the other hand, is a proactive way to go about reducing inflammation, decreasing soreness, kick-starting recovery, and getting your body back in the business of kicking names and taking ass faster.
Like getting lots of sleep, or eating for athletic performance instead of according to your cravings, active recovery is a tool that will help you through those tough stretches of training, or when you are feeling particularly beat up.
Your muscles will heal faster, your stress levels will come down quicker, and your next workout will benefit because of it.
5 Ideas for Active Recovery Workouts
Here are 5 different things you can do for active recovery:
1. Active recovery workout.
The last place most people want to go when they are tired and racked with soreness is back to the gym, but what if I told you that walking through the doors of the gym doesn’t mean you have to hit a PR?
Athletes do it all the time—as a university athlete we routinely had practices where we were specifically instructed not to get our heart rates over 130 bpm, as the workout was solely designed to help keep our muscles loose while also helping recovery along. If we sprinted or the intensity got too high we were told to back off.
You don’t need to be a high level athlete to benefit from the decreased soreness and faster recovery that comes with these specifically low-intensity workouts.
An active recovery workout in your case could mean going in and doing some bodyweight exercises and some light aerobic work on the stationary bike. Or for athletes, doing a workout at half intensity and speed. These kinds of sessions are killer for dialing in your technique, and are great for drill work.
In both cases, you are training and maintaining the motor patterns without crushing your central nervous system.
Here’s a sample active recovery workout that focuses on functional movement patterns that will help you flush things out.
2. Foam rolling.
Self-myofascial release has exploded across gyms and training centers in recent years, and with good reason—it works.
Research has shown over and over again the power of the foam roller, with 20-minutes of rolling post-workout decreasing muscle soreness and helping to limit power and strength loss in subsequent workouts.
Don’t have or want a foam roller? A little hesitant to try out a vibrating foam roller? Aren’t into kneading yourself silly with a muscle roller stick? Get a lacrosse or massage ball to massage out tight fascia and sore muscles.
They are particularly handy for those athletes who are on the road a lot, want to do some SMR while sitting up, or really need to dig into some tight spots. (I currently have one digging into my left scap as I write this.)
3. EMS machine.
You’ve already heard of EMS (electronic muscle stimulation) machines (think Dr. Ho and those late night infomercials), but probably never realized that they are quite powerful for recovery.
As far as active recovery techniques I guess this one is a bit of a cheater—you passively sit while it actively pulses and flexes your muscles for you, helping to flush systemic waste quicker than if you were sitting still.
An EMS machine, when used in a pulsing mode promotes blood flow and circulation, simulating low intensity exercise, and boosting recovery along the way. It can be used to target muscles that are otherwise hard to target by yourself, including your back, arms, and traps, and can be done while you are doing other things.
A meta-study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research covered papers from 1970 and 2012, and found that EMS machines were consistently shown to be highly effective at reducing soreness and lowering blood lactate levels.
The only drawback?
These machines tend to be fairly expensive. The MarcPro, a machine I’ve used consistently since purchasing it a few years ago (and which I cover in our gift guide for athletes), runs at close to $950.
Massage has been around for thousands of years as a way to treat injury and illness, with Chinese texts going as far back as 2500 BC, discussing ways massage helps medical ailments.
Massage has been shown to reduce the severity of muscle soreness, decrease cortisol levels, keep you flexible, and even improve sleep (which basically makes it a double-whammy for recovery).
Being able to recover adequately requires a certain ability to relax, a gear that hard-driving athletes may find it difficult to shift into. Massage elevates relaxation levels, decreasing tension and help gym-goers and athletes not only better learn to relax the body and mind, but also be better prepared to kill it at their next workout.
Yup, walking. With your own two feet.
Walking, in many ways, is the perfect active recovery tool. It requires no equipment, can be done at your own pace, and there is no temptation to push past recovery mode into workout mode.
The perks of walking for active recovery go beyond your muscles. Research has shown that strolling outdoors is good for your brain, leading to increases in self-esteem. It can even help you curb cravings for those naughty-naughty foods.
It can also be a social activity: instead of curling up on the couch and watching TV tonight, grab your girlfriend or boyfriend and go for a half-hour walk and actually talk instead of mumbling through the commercial breaks about what you should eat later.
If it seems like it is too easy, that’s exactly the point. It’s a low intensity, functional movement that will help promote blood flow and leave you feeling refreshed.
Active Recovery: When Should You Do It?
You probably already know when the best time to hit your first round of active recovery is, and if you are like most, you are doing an awesome job of avoiding it…
Ditching out on a warm-down is pretty standard protocol for just about every athlete and gym-goer I have ever worked with. It’s a universally loathed item on our workout to-do list. I get it—the work has been done, the heavy lifting completed, and now it’s time to go home and stuff our faces.
But spending some time at the gym post-workout rolling, cycling, doing yoga, swimming—whatever you active recovery weapon of choice might be—will help you big-time in making sure that you are ready to rock and roll tomorrow.
Besides that, get in your recovery sessions when you can.
Foam roll while watching TV. Go for walks at night with your partner. Hit the massage table on your day off from work.
There are a couple of quick tips I would add to help you make the most of this tool.
First, rest days are rest days.
Going to the gym and giving a purposely half-hearted effort is difficult. There’ll be moments where you wanna say “Suck it, rest day!” and hit the gas.
Resist this urge.
The whole point of these workouts is that you walk out of the gym feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.
Secondly, plan your rest and recovery days.
On weeks where I know I am going to be feeling crushed I carve out time in the mid-afternoon between sessions, or after my PM workouts, where it is all about active recovery.
Whether that means time spent on the EMS machine, foam rolling, massage, or simply going for a long walk with the girlfriend, having my recovery work scheduled and as part of my overall workout regimen makes it much more likely that it will actually get done.
Sit down with your training journal and look at the week ahead. You probably already know which workouts will be the ones to leave you in tatters, so schedule some recovery work.
You’ll feel better, and maximize the chance of having another killer workout tomorrow.
So, isn’t it time you started taking your recovery a little more seriously?