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How to Structure Your Active Recovery Day

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

I am a big proponent of rest days in an exercise program. These days allow our bodies to recover and rebuild. However, a rest day does not always mean sit around and do nothing. Sometimes these types of days are of course needed, however, if you are one that wants to do something active on a rest day, active recovery days are perfect for you.

Active recovery days are a go-to strategy for many trainees and competitive athletes. Active recovery days aim to provide low level activity that does not tax the body to the same extent as a training session during the week would. These activities provide blood flow to the muscles to help provide nutrients needed for recovery and help clear metabolic waste from the week of training. They can provide low level cardiovascular training which may help fat burning capabilities during exercise. They may also keep the body feeling loose and mobile. When strategically planned out, active rest days can provide a break from the repetitive movements that you may be doing throughout the training week.

When trying to decide what your active recovery day should look like consider the following and make your choices based on what is best for you.

The first step should be determining which activities can keep your heart rate relatively low. Remember, even though you are partaking in physical activity that counts as exercise, this is not meant to provide the same training stimulus as a day in the gym would. I would strive to keep this type of activity lower than 60% of you max heart rate. Going to the park and playing a full court game of pick up basketball may turn into a full on workout, negating the purpose of the active recovery day.

This heart rate keeps us closer to a parasympathetic state versus a sympathetic one. These are the two branches of the autonomic nervous system.

The parasympathetic is considered our rest and digest system and is where we want to be for recovery purposes. The sympathetic system is stimulated when we put ourselves through a hard training session, and this is our stress response. We know that uncontrollable stress has negative consequences, and the same applies to exercise, because the body perceives exercise as a stressor. If we drastically increase our sympathetic activity all the time via intense exercise, without allowing any time in the parasympathetic zone; we run the risk of overtraining which increases our chances of injury and performance decrements. So, what can an active recovery day look like? Here are some options.

Walking, hiking, kayaking, canoeing, household chores (building, gardening, yard-work), light aerobic work such as light jog or light bicycle ride. These outdoor activities can also help to get you outside for some vitamin D (most people are deficient in) and some fresh air. This combo of fresh air and sunlight may also provide you with a more parasympathetic state.

Other sporting activity different from yours. These can provide movement variations to keep your body feeling loose and provide a break from the repetition of your weekly training routine. For example, say you are a wide receiver and your football season just ended and you are in the beginning of your first general prep phase of your strength and conditioning program. Having a light baseball toss with some teammates can add movement variation such as rotation to a position that is very linear.

On the flip side, if you participate in a sport such as ice hockey, a long low intensity bike ride may not be the best since both require high amounts of hip flexion and could lead to overuse related pain or injury. So, consider which muscles are used, the action of those muscles, and the positions or your body when deciding on what physical activity you want to do for an active recovery day. As you can see, some planning should go into an active recovery day.

There are so many things that we are told to do in order to optimize our performance in the gyms. Two of the most common ones that coaches (like me) advocate for is improving flexibility and mobility. These two abilities can benefit us in how we move and perform not just in terms of pounds lifted, but also in everyday activities such as walking and doing chores. As beneficial as these are, they are hard to incorporate into your daily training program, especially if you are not a professional athlete that can devote your entire life to performance. Most of us have other responsibilities such as jobs, school, family, and those chores around the house.

One way to maximize your active recovery day is to dedicate it to flexibility and mobility. When determining what to actually do for flexibility and mobility is ultimately based upon your needs and what your individual joint range of motions measurements are. But, having a day dedicated to these two pieces of training can help free up time during the week. This means your training sessions can be completed in a timely manner without trying to squeeze everything into one single training session.

Rest days are a big part of a well-rounded exercise routine. They give our bodies a chance to recover and rebuild so that we can tackle the next week of training. For many of us, we do not like just sitting around doing nothing active all day (myself included). As you can see, a rest day does not have to mean sit and loaf around all day. So hopefully these strategies outlined here help you maximize your active recovery day and prep you for your next week of training.

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