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Active, Passive, and Earned Exercise Recovery Strategies

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This article is the fourth and final installment in the exercise recovery series.

I’m finally going to cover the sexy stuff. These aren’t cutting-edge recovery modalities that will supercharge your training, recovery, and results, but they are the recovery methods that all work. They don’t work as powerfully as the marketing machine would have you believe, but you are looking for marginal gains at this stage of the recovery puzzle—not game-changers.

The recovery strategies covered in this article all have strong evidence to support them.

I have not covered several other recovery methods because there is not strong enough evidence to be confident in recommending them.

There are two categories of recovery strategies; I’ll cover both:

  1. Passive recovery methods are those that focus on stillness and inactivity. 
  2. Active recovery methods require activity, but in a way that promotes recovery rather than intensity.

Passive Recovery

  • Hydration could fall under the umbrella of nutrition. It is undoubtedly an essential factor to consider in your overall training performance and recovery. Drinking adequate amounts of water is critical to your health, energy levels, gym performance, and healing.
  • Many of us tend to be hyper-aware of our hydration during workouts and competition but less focused on hydration the rest of the time. Increasing awareness of your hydration status the rest of the time can significantly improve your recovery. We are about 60% water so, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that it’s essential to stay hydrated.
  • Water aids all of our bodily functions. Amongst other things, optimal hydration levels allow for cell growth and reproduction, effective digestion, efficient nutrient uptake, oxygen delivery, temperature regulation, hormone and neurotransmitter production, lower levels of stress on the heart, and joint lubrication. All of these factors influence training and recovery.
  • The simplest way to check your hydration status is to look at your pee. If it is clear to a pale straw color, you are well hydrated. The darker your pee, the less hydrated you are.

A good target to shoot for with water intake is 0.04 liters per kilogram of body weight. For a 100 kg (220 lbs) person, that is 4 liters per day.

100 kg x 0.04 liters = 4 Liters

Your exact needs will depend on other factors like activity level, perspiration rate, and ambient temperature. Begin with the 0.04 liters per kg recommendation and adjust as needed. The following guidelines can help you to stay well hydrated:

  • Drinking water is the best way to hydrate.

  • Tea and coffee have a net hydrating effect, but they are not as effective as drinking water.

  • You do not need sports drinks for average strength and bodybuilding training. Only drink them before, during, and after strenuous exercise or competition for a duration > 90 minutes.

Proper diet planning takes care of adequate nutrients to fuel your workouts.

  • Napping is a bit of a cheat because I covered the importance of sleep for your last article’s recovery. That focus was on improving the quantity and quality of your sleep overnight. Supplementing your nighttime sleep with naps can also be beneficial and enhance recovery.
  • It is important to note that while napping can help get quality sleep and improve recovery, it should not replace sound sleep patterns. Make getting a good night’s sleep your top priority. Then to optimize recovery, utilize napping. When napping, it is best not to do it too close to your regular bedtime. Napping late in the day can disrupt your sleep during the night and become a false economy. Generally, late morning or early afternoon naps work well to improve recovery without impacting your normal sleep routine.
  • Keep the naps short. Taking 20-30 minute naps can help increase recovery and mental cognition. Napping for too long could result in sleep insomnia. The risk of this increases if you nap for longer than 30 minutes or late in the day.

  • The Coffee Nap Hack: If you feel groggy after a nap, it can be a false economy. Napping for 20 minutes aids recovery but, if you feel like a zombie for the next hour, your productivity will tank, and you will rightly question whether the nap was a worthwhile strategy. I have struggled with this in the past.
  • A tip that worked well for me was to have a coffee just before my nap. The caffeine from the coffee hit my bloodstream and caused a short-term spike in cortisol which helped me feel alert and refreshed after the nap.

Massage: While there is some evidence to support massage’s physiological benefits, the real benefits appear more psychological.

There is strong evidence for the psychological and relaxation benefits of massage. These factors all play a significant role in your recovery and adaptation.

So, deep-tissue sports massage may not be the best approach since this is anything but relaxing. A gentler approach may be more beneficial for recovery as you can completely relax and enjoy the experience.

Active Recovery

Light Days: Lighter training days can potentially improve recovery time more than a full rest day. Systematic decreases define a lighter day in training volume and intensity. Light days fall under good programming.

  • For strength or power goals: I find that lighter days are incredibly beneficial. You can program these every week (or multiple times per week) to allow for increased frequency on technique-driven lifts such as weightlifting and gymnastics. Yet still, allow for recovery and adaptation. This emphasis will enable you to grease the groove of a lift and refines the technique without generating much fatigue.
  • For bodybuilding goals: I think you can utilize the lighter days in a slightly different way. In this instance, I tend to use light days as days when smaller muscle groups create less systemic fatigue and require less mental arousal to train or make up a workout. I have found this works well to manage the total training stress across a week and means that a lifter can get a productive workout while allowing for a good recovery.

  • Active Recovery Days: Active recovery days are quite risky. They certainly can enhance recovery, but most gym rats struggle to resist the temptation of turning their active recovery day into full-blown workouts.
  • When temptation is too strong, all that happens is you slow the recovery from your usual workouts. This slowdown defeats the object of active recovery days. It would help if you were honest with yourself about this. If you know you lack the discipline to stick to the recovery day plan, stay away from the gym. Do nothing. Just take a rest day.
  • On the other hand, if you can stick to the plan for your recovery day, you might improve your overall recovery. The difference isn’t dramatic, but every little bit adds up.

A recovery day increases blood flow and alleviates psychological stress.

These two things can boost the recovery and adaptation process. Low-intensity activities are suitable for recovery days.

A favorite strategy of mine is to get outside for a brisk 20-minute walk. Walking increases blood flow and will aid recovery, especially to your legs, but is still low intensity. It does not interfere with recovery from prior training or performance in subsequent sessions.

Another right choice is a mobility routine.

A whole-body mobility flow can be a productive strategy for recovery days.

The key is to remember that recovery days should involve more general fitness movements in a less-structured training environment at lower intensities than regular training.

Avoid any high-intensity style training, an excessive-duration or a novel activity, and anything strenuous. Recovery day sessions should be lighter and shorter than typical training sessions. They should promote recovery, not feel like a workout.

The clue is in the name—Recovery!

Eke Out Exercise Recovery

This article is the shortest one in this series by some margin. The reason is that these recovery strategies are less effective than the other factors I’ve covered.

If you find you are investing more time, money, and energy in the recovery methods in this article than those in the first three installments, then you’re missing out on a better recovery.

If, however, you’ve ticked off all the other elements from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of our exercise recover series then, you can eke out some additional recovery capacity by implementing the strategies covered here.

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