Trainers often point out you don’t build muscle when you work out — that’s when you tear them down — you build muscle and get stronger during recovery, as your muscles repair those micro-fissures. That’s why rest days are so crucial to any fitness plan, especially if you’re new to exercise and getting your body used to a routine.
Rest days don’t mean you need to go to the extreme and be completely sedentary to see benefits. In fact, doing active recovery can yield tremendous benefits, says Aaron Leventhal, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Fit Studios in Minneapolis.
“This is the type of recovery where you’re scaling way back on intensity and effort, by at least half of what you put in during a regular workout,” he says. “These recovery sessions help you recover more effectively from exercise, and they can also provide an opportunity to progress in a meaningful way.”
In addition to giving your muscles a rest, active recovery also provides a wealth of other advantages. For example, studies show this type of recovery may help clear blood lactate in the body, which means you could reduce post-workout soreness and fatigue, while also prepping your muscles for better endurance.
There’s also the mindset advantage of active recovery, adds performance coach Barbara Cox, PhD, who says these types of easier training sessions — or downshifts within a session — can make you feel especially focused, and that can lead to stronger motivation for staying consistent with your fitness.
“Giving yourself a feeling of a break while still progressing toward your goals is refreshing,” she says. “The brain needs that kind of easy win, that feeling of activity as being fun. It’s also a great way to get out of a rut or a plateau.”
Unlike passive recovery, which could also be called rest, active recovery often involves moving to some degree, and comes in three forms:
- During a workout: This is when you take that brief break in a HIIT session or between strength-training sets. Rather than stopping motion completely, walking around or doing gentle dynamic stretches can help lower fatigue for the rest of your workout.
- Following a workout: As a cooldown, active recovery is crucial because it helps decrease lactate levels, but also resets the body, Leventhal says. You can follow with passive stretching, but only after a short session of active recovery, around 5–10 minutes.
- Full rest days: These are when your muscles recover the most, and it’s when active recovery focuses on a different activity than you do during a workout, usually one that’s low-impact and done at an easy pace. For example, if you’re a runner, you may do a yoga session, or if you’re a powerlifter, you could try swimming.
On those full active recovery days, switching up your form of exercise is an important part of decreasing overuse injury risk and improving range of motion and overall mobility.
If you’re looking to incorporate active recovery into your mix, the first step is to schedule it. That might mean adding extra time onto your cooldown, or choosing which days in the weeks ahead will be reserved for recovery.
As you start adding them in, be sure to switch it up occasionally, Leventhal says. For example, he shifts his own workout and active recovery schedule every couple weeks and finds it helps optimize his recovery and prevents hitting plateaus with his fitness goals.
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Also, plan your activity rather than winging it. At least a few days per month, designate your active recovery day as a skill-building session, Leventhal suggests, when you can focus on your form.
For instance, a weightlifter might use very light loads while doing a snatch or a clean. A runner could go very slowly to be more aware of foot strike and body positioning. No matter what your activity, begin noticing your breathing patterns as you move, and whether you’re using one side of the body more than the other. These are the kind of subtle awareness moments you may not have in a regular workout.
“Don’t think of active recovery as a full-on break,” advises Leventhal. “Instead, see it as a chance to dial back and reset, which will give you huge advantages for staying on track with your fitness.”
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