Absolutely crushing a hard workout feels amazing. No matter your sport, training regime or activity, leaving it all at the gym can make you feel motivated for the next round and ultimately boost performance.
Rest days, too, can be a crucial part of muscle recovery, and aid with endurance and strength. But there’s a third element of a workout mix that can be equally useful, yet often underutilized: the easy workout.
The definition of “easy” is based on what your activity might be, as well as your training level, but it’s usually seen as working out at about 50% of your usual intensity. Easy days are sometimes called “active recovery days.”
These workouts can sometimes be harder to do than really tough sessions, because for many athletes, dialing back on intensity is psychologically difficult, says Aaron Leventhal, NSCA-CPT, owner of Fit Studios in Minneapolis.
“If you’re engaged in your sport, that drives you to give your best effort,” he notes. “Doing more reps at lower weight, or moving at about 60% of your usual pace, can feel excruciating. It’s like getting stuck behind a really slow-moving car on the highway.”
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But easy workouts come with a host of benefits, he says. Most of all, the slower pace or lighter weights force you to think about your form, not your speed or strength. For example, a runner who dials the treadmill down to half the usual pace will have more awareness of body positioning, breathing, shoulder mobility, arm swing and foot-strike issues.
“The physical demand is low, but the mental demand is high,” Leventhal says. “And it can really make a difference in how you do your training on all the other days.”
HOW TO GET IN THE MINDSET
Here are two tips to incorporate these workouts so they become part of your progress, not a roadblock to it:
BECOME A BEGINNER AGAIN
Think about the movements you do all the time, whether that’s a backstroke, layup, bicep curl or downward dog. Most likely, you’ve stopped thinking about form and have moved on to intensity or weight load. But now think about that move as if you’re doing it for the first time: What would you change? How would you position your body different?
“When you examine the way your body moves in certain ways, you can see the complexity and difficulty levels,” says Leventhal. “Play around with that. See what happens if you change your positioning.”
Also, notice your breath: How you breathe during moments of exertion can have a major effect on performance.
The only way to notice these subtle shifts is through slowing down, he adds. Do that bicep curl so deliberately — and with a much lighter weight than you’d usually use — that it’s almost painful to your performance-driven psyche. This can be particularly useful if you’ve suffered injuries in the past, because you may pick up on what you’re doing wrong with your form.
TRACK YOUR INSIGHTS
Start by incorporating one or two easy workout days into your schedule, Leventhal advises. To get the most out of the effort, write down what you learn during the sessions. For example, jotting down the observation that you overpronate when tired can be a helpful insight to keep in mind for your next training session.
Also, tracking your progress is a good way to see if easy workouts are fitting in well with your current schedule, or if you have to switch it all up and shorten your time frame between challenging workouts.
One of the biggest advantages to easy workouts is you tend to recover faster from hard workouts, says James Tyler Dodge, CSCS, CISSN, and performance coach at Professional Physical Therapy in New York.
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“With active recovery days, you may be able to shorten the time between intense workouts,” he says. That can be especially helpful when training for an athletic event.
As long as you’re keeping track of the effects and seeing progress, easy workouts can be a crucial component in your workout mix.