By Timothy Gould, DPT
The benefits of exercise are vast and undeniable. Among them, an individual often experiences a rush of endorphins, stress relief, empowerment, a meditative state, advancement toward a goal and a general sense of healthy well-being. For those reasons, many people seek out exercise on a daily basis, endeavoring to feel these positive effects and to progress toward their objectives. Although well intended, a perpetual state of training will actually have adverse effects on the body and can impede you from meeting your goals. Therein lies the importance of proper recovery.
When we train, we purposefully and systematically apply stresses to the body in an effort to stimulate adaptation in the form of improved strength, flexibility, endurance, balance, etc. Ideally this occurs in a cyclical process: A stress is applied to the body, the body is subsequently allowed to recover, tissue adaptation occurs, and the body is then able to sustain greater stresses over time.
It is the element of recovery in this equation that allows for tissue adaptation. Without it, your body is under constant stress and never gets the opportunity to repair. Lack of repair not only slows progress toward your intended goal, but persistent muscle loading can lead to injuries that could seriously set back your training.
There are two types of recovery: passive and active. Each has its own function and importance, but research suggests that regular active recovery is the more beneficial method in assisting tissue repair. An added bonus is that active recovery is just that—it’s active. So if you can’t bring yourself to take a complete “off” day in your training program, you can still reap the essential benefits of proper recovery.
Active recovery is characterized by a low- to medium-intensity, low-volume training session. It should leave you feeling energized, mobile and ready to resume full training activities the next day. An active recovery session should not elicit fatigue or stimulate any soreness afterward. Rather, it is a chance to engage your body in a different way from usual exercise, to focus on different muscles than you target in a typical workout, vary your mode of cardiovascular demand, alter your rep/set parameters. Whatever the variation, just be sure you are not replicating the same stresses that your body is usually subject to.
If you are training for a marathon, for example, this means taking a day off from running and instead working on self myofascial release(a form of soft tissue mobilization)flexibility, swimming, cycling or weight training (all at low to moderate intensity). If you are a power lifter, this means emphasizing mobility, working with lower weights and higher repetitions, and focusing on form and posture. If you are just an avid exerciser and already have a varied cross-training routine, it still means that you have to take a day to focus on lower intensity and volume to give your body a break and a chance to repair.
As opposed to passive recovery (a complete shutdown day with no exercise whatsoever), active recovery stimulates increased circulation to areas in need of nutrition during the repair process. When you’re sore after days of regular training, active recovery also helps flush out lactic acid via circulatory transport in the region. The effect is a body that is optimized for tissue repair and feels good after the process.
If you’re exercising five or more days per week, replace a day of exercise with an active recovery day; if you’re exercising three to four days per week, consider adding a day of active recovery to your routine. These active recovery sessions should last only 20 to 40 minutes and can include activities such as steady walking (no heavy hiking or hills), gentle yoga, low-impact cardiovascular exercise such as swimming or cycling (at 40-60 percent intensity), myofascial release and stretching, postural exercises, light circuit weight training focusing on multiple body regions (for example, using weight equivalent to 30 percent of your single rep max over a 30 second duration).
Any single type of exercise performed to excess has a high potential to hinder tissue repair and cause injury, whether it be running, swimming or yoga. The human body (and mind, though that is a separate topic) craves variability. The beauty of the active recovery session is that it can take many forms, giving you a chance to try something new and to break up the monotony of your usual routine. Moreover, it will promote tissue repair, allow your body to adapt and build, and, if you do it right, you’ll feel great afterward.
Timothy Gould holds a doctorate in physical therapy from SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and works at Dee Physical Therapy in Shelburne. He can be reached via email.