Active Recovery for Athletes

Fast and efficient recovery leads to the ability to train harder and longer which, theoretically, should equate to higher levels of performance. It’s really that simple, and it’s why recovery is one of the 5 Controllable Factors of Performance that we are trying to maximize at Sled Dog Development. It’s important to find proper recovery methods to keep athletes fresh and ready to perform, not to mention avoiding any sort of over-training.

The most efficient way to recover is by sitting on the couch right? Well, I have some athletes that feel as if they always need to be doing something, and spending a day watching the entire Star Wars catalogue isn’t really an option for them. Don’t get me wrong, we stress the importance of taking days off for both the mind and the body to recover, and most of the time my job is more about holding the athlete back from overtraining rather than having to push them forwards, but what if there’s a way to recover without an athlete feeling stressed about losing out on valuable training days?

In this article, I’m going to dive into a term that many are familiar with, but it seems that few truly understand. I’m talking about active recovery. I’m going to share all the fun physiology that occurs, as well as dive into some specific active recovery sessions that you can start implementing into your or your athlete’s training today.

Photo of Dude performing active recovery by stretching

Yoga/Stretching are just a few of the many forms of active recovery that can be utilized to maximize performance

What is Active Recovery?

Active recovery is a form of low-intensity, low-impact exercise performed anytime during the recovery phase following a workout or competition, typically on rest days. The name isn’t trying to trick you. Swimming, walking, and self-myofascial release are just a couple types of active recovery that I am going to talk about later in this article that will help you recover more efficiently.

What Does Active Recovery Do?

Without getting too scientific, blood lactate and hydrogen ion levels are elevated during high-intensity exercise. The accumulation of acid in the body leads to your muscles feeling sore after activity. The main idea behind any type of recovery is to return the body to homeostasis as fast as possible to once again be ready to perform at high levels. An excellent way to do this is to perform active recovery.

By getting your body moving post-workout or on your off-day, you are going to increase the amount of blood that flows to your muscles without any of the lactate buildup that occurs with higher intensity exercise. This process accelerates the removal of lactate and hydrogen ions from the muscles, leading us closer to homeostasis than a day on the couch would.

Active recovery not only flushes out any lactate and hydrogen ions found in the blood after exercise, but the increase of blood flow can help keep an athlete psychologically fit. A couple of the athletes that I work with have a hard time spending a full day without training or some sort of movement before going insane. I’ve found a great way to cope with this without scheduling a workout every single day and consequently overtraining them, is to encourage them towards a day of low-intensity active recovery. This way, the athlete will feel as if they aren’t wasting a valuable day of training and could even create some buy-in to a program. Doing things that get them active outside of the gym while still increasing performance will most likely be beneficial for an athlete’s mental health, making training more sustainable.

Photo of Group laying with their backs on the ground and legs up on a wall performing active recovery by stretching

By getting your body moving post-workout or on your off-day, you are going to increase the amount of blood that flows to your muscles without any of the lactate buildup that occurs with higher intensity exercise

Passive vs Active Recovery

You might now understand why active recovery is a valuable tool for athletes but is it really better than just taking a day of rest? Psychologically, it may or may not be, depending on the particular athlete and situation. The physical benefits of active recovery are more tangible.

One particular experiment run by presumably smart people wanted to answer the question of whether passive or active recovery is more beneficial and find out what the ideal exercise intensity is for clearing muscles from the byproducts of exercise (1). They ended up finding that recovering at intensities of 0-40% of lactate threshold is not as effective at returning muscles to homeostasis as exercising at 60-100% of your lactate threshold.

These results affirm our thought that active recovery (60-100% lactate threshold) after exercise will benefit us more than passive recovery (0-40% lactate threshold). Now that we’re confident that active recovery is a good thing, I’m going to take you through some specific active recovery workouts that you can start implementing into your training as soon as possible.

Active Recovery Workouts For Athletes

Swimming

Perhaps my favourite form of active recovery, the low-impact nature of swimming is an excellent full-body exercise that doesn’t put any excessive strain on the joints. Don’t try and be Michael Phelps in the pool because you aren’t, and trying to keep up with his world record pace is going to give us the opposite result from what we’re looking for from an active recovery standpoint. While swimming is also a great cardio exercise, that is not the main focus here.

Everybody’s at a different level in their swimming career so it would be silly to prescribe a “best swimming active recovery workout.” What I am going to do, however, is give people somewhere to start. Below is a super basic example of an active recovery swimming workout that is easy to scale based on your own needs and skill level. Make sure to focus on technique, not speed to get the most out of these specific workouts.

The Workout:

  1. 100m Freestyle warmup
  2. 25m Kickboard
  3. Literally, just swim at an easy pace in any stroke you want for about 15 minutes
Photo of Dude performing active recovery by swimming

Swimming is a great way to get the blood flowing while applying minimal impact on joints

Jogging/Walking

Perhaps more accessible than driving to a swimming pool, jogging or walking can be a simple active recovery exercise that most people can do. Getting out of the house and getting some more blood flowing through your body is an easy way to make the most out of your recovery days.

As with the other active recovery workouts for athletes, make sure to keep a sustainable pace below your lactate threshold. If you are unsure where your lactate threshold is, if you feel a burning sensation in your muscles during these exercises, you’ve gone too far.

Jogging will most likely get you better results than walking as you’re coming closer to that lactate threshold I keep talking about, but the improper form that many athletes have while running can be hard on joints and can lead to chronic problems. Common mistakes that I see all the time in no specific order are overstriding, choppy gait, improper footwear, and terrible upper body posture.

Jogging will probably be the active recovery form of choice for a lot of athletes reading this because it’s super accessible and simple, but do yourself a favour a watch a couple of YouTube videos on proper running form before filming your Rocky hype video. I’m going to be writing a post on proper running form in the future, but for now, here’s a good video covering the basics to help you run injury-free.

The Workout:

  • Jogging: A slow 20-minute jog focusing on form sounds like a good place to start
  • Walking: Try for at least a 30-45 minute walk. Engage your upper body by adding an arm swing to increase blood flow
Photo of Group performing active recovery by jogging

Getting out of the house and getting some more blood flowing through your body is an easy way to make the most out of your recovery days

Self-Myofascial Release

More commonly known as foam rolling, self-myofascial release is an easy and effective way to make the most out of your recovery. Foam rolling is pretty much a free massage that you don’t have to schedule an appointment for.

Not only does it relieve muscle tension like a massage would, but the increase in blood flow is exactly what we’re looking for in an active recovery day. The movement of the roller allows for the reduction of delayed onset muscle soreness and is a great tool to use before and after workouts, and on your active recovery day.

Once again, I will be writing a cover-all article on self-myofascial release in the future, so stay tuned on the Sled Dog Development Instagram and sign up for my weekly newsletter so you don’t miss out.

The Workout:

  • Go to town on your body with a foam roller. I find I can be pretty thorough and hit most of my body in about 15 minutes.
  • You can also use a tennis or lacrosse ball to get into the places a foam roller can’t quite hit in your pelvic and shoulder girdles.

Foam Rolling is even better when your strength coach brings his dogs in.

Other Examples

By now I think you have the main info needed to make your own active recovery workout and slip it into your program, so I think it would be redundant for me to keep talking about performing your active recovery sessions at an easy pace and not reaching your lactate threshold. So what I will do instead, is give you a couple of other activities that you can take and start implementing into your routine.

Some Other Active Recovery Workouts Are:

  • Cycling
  • Stretching
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Light Resistance Training
  • Hiking

Ozzy’s Action

This week, I want you to give at least one of these strategies a shot, and see if you can carry it into some of your future training (Don’t feel limited to the list either. You now know what active recovery entails, get creative). Perform it on your rest day or even a couple of hours after a lift on a resistance day. Start to feel the benefits and focus on finding movement while still being able to enjoy a recovery day!