What is Active Recovery?
Active recovery is basically a form of low level exercise. This form of exercise should put very little stress on our joints, tendons, and muscles, while comfortably stressing our heart and lungs to improve the delivery of oxygen rich blood to our body. This is essential for healing, recovery from hard training, and basic health. It's also been shown to be a very effective way to help people become more active and loose weight while minimizing their risk for injury.
This write up will first discuss how we can subjectively and objectively measure active recovery. Then we'll discuss how we can make better active recovery choices by understanding a concept called "Movement Variability."
The 2 key factors for measuring active recovery are Duration & Intensity:
1) Duration: Q: How long?
A: Basically the longer and easier the activity the better. Time is important and we will typically recommend 30 min – 1 hour, but if you only have 10-15 min we’ll take it! The American Heart Associate recommends 30 min of low - moderate physical activity at least 5 days a week (an example of a Minimum Effective Dose for joint health).
2) Intensity: Q: How hard?
A: You should be able to carry on a conversation while doing active recovery. It should elevate your core body temperature and ideally make you sweat (but not always). It should elevate your breathing rate while still allowing you to tell a friend a story. Sweating, holding a conversation, or feeling an increase in body temperature are all forms of subjectively measuring intensity.
Another easy way to measure intensity is using a subjective scale called the Rate of Perceived Excretion or RPE scale from 0 (easiest) to 10 (hardest).
On the RPE scale, active recovery would fall in the 3-4 range (light – low level aerobic exercise). On this same scale, 0 would be laying down and sprinting up stairs would likely be a 10.
Using something called a "heart rate zone" can help us be more objective about our active recovery "intensity".
For those who are getting back to physical activity, we use the "20-40 rule" to help them hit their minimum effective "heart rate zone". The "20-40 rule" helps identify your HR zone and means you should increase your resting heart rate by at LEAST 20 beats per minute (bpm) for the lower limit and 40 bpm above resting for the upper limit. This will give you your heart rate zone you should strive for during active recovery. For example, if your resting heart rate (HR) is 75-80 bpm, an active recovery HR range for you would be between 95-120 bpm.
The higher your resting HR, the lower your HR range should be with active recovery, sticking with this "20-40 rule". A higher resting HR (ruling out any medical condition) means that you aren't that physically active and your heart has to work a lot hard to maintain the same level of work compared to someone with a low resting HR.
People who are fairly active and well conditioned will have a resting heart rate between 50-65 bpm. These individuals need to go above the "20-40 Rule" to get the same physiological effect from active recovery so we'll typically recommend a heart rate zone around 110-130 bpm depending on their fitness level.
The gold standard for tracking heart rate is a heart rate monitor with a chest strap or using some of the new technology like one of the Fitbit products that tracks real-time heart rate. I like the Fitbit Charge 2 & the Ionic products. The Fitbit app also automatically tracks HR trends for you, giving you daily, weekly and monthly data which is very useful for planning and adapting activity. Fitbit also helps you track other crucial factors for recovery like resting HR (which we need to figure out HR zones), sleep quality & quantity, hydration, and how stationary vs. active you are throughout the day.
Think of heart rate monitors as your self-regulating device that protects you against your ego & urge to go hard anyway day in and day out. This can quickly lead to "over-training" and repetitive stress injuries and the first sign of this is typically a subtle increase in resting HR.
Don't bother trying to stop and take your HR the old fashion way. Get a HR monitor so you have immediate in the moment feedback about your HR & intensity while you're moving to keep you on track.
If you're a type A personality, who loves exercise, this behavior of "go hard all the time" will keep happening. You're human. It's normal. Just keep reminding yourself:
"This is my active recovery day. Chill out. I'm just trying to deliver oxygen rich blood to my body to aide in recovery, health, and well being".
Then take a deep breath in for some oxygen, smile, then exhale and keep going within your HR zone.
The most impressive thing to me about active recovery is that it is extremely effective for rehab, training, general health, and believe it or not weight loss! Imagine that. You don't have to completely crush yourself to drop a couple of pounds?!
making active recovery choices
If you are an avid exerciser, active recovery would ideally be something other than your typical choice of exercise.
For example, if you are a runner, we wouldn’t consider going for a “light” run an effective active recovery choice. Instead, we would suggest something like treading water in the pool or a stationary bike. The reason for this is a concept called "Movement Variability", which just means exposure to a wider variety of movement patterns to minimize the repetitiveness of any activity.
Let's be honest, if you had a frustrating work day, that “light” run you planned can easily become a moderate to intense session as you take your frustrations out on the pavement.
Most physical activities & sports exposes us to repetitive movements which places predictable & repetitive stresses throughout our bodies. This doesn’t mean that these activity choices are bad for us. It just means that we need to be mindful of the repetitiveness we are being exposed to so we can be wiser with our physical routines and our active recovery choices to avoid unnecessary repetitive stress injuries like many forms of tendonitis.
Some Active Recovery Options:
This has been known for many years now, but the dry heat of a sauna forces our bodies to try to regulate our body temperature to avoid over-heating through something called "Evaporative Cooling". As the sweat evaporates off our skin it creates a cooling affect. In order to produce sweat, the heart has to working harder in order to get blood & fluids to the skin for sweat production. This produces a cardiovascular stress that is fairly similar to “doing cardio” or aerobic activity.
This is a great way to do cardio if you're feeling lazy, really sore from hard training, or just need a relaxing recharge.
Caution should be taken with the use of saunas:
1. Seek medical clearance before participation as you would before cardiovascular training.
2. Always bring water and fluids in with you to stay hydrated.
3. If you are a beginner start slow with 5-10 min at a time and never exceed 20-30 continuous minutes without breaks or monitoring your heart rate. Depending on your fitness level, your HR can reach zones that are similar to moderate - intense cardiovascular training. Remember the intent of active recovery is low level aerobic stress.
2. Stationary bike
This is straight forward. Get on a bike, if this isn't your normal routine, and ride staying in a low level aerobic state for 15 min to 1 hour. For the sake of postural variability, every once in a while switch up your position/posture.
3. Brisk Walking
This does not include walking to get to your car, to get to work, or to pick up your lunch.
This is a brisk walk with a wellness focus & intent; this walk is about you and providing a low level aerobic stress to your body & your heart. You are constantly reminding yourself to take deep breathes in through your nose and exhale out through your mouth to oxygenate your body.
If you're pretty fit and well conditioned you might consider uphill walking since walking on level ground probably won't get you into the appropriate HR zone.
Walk like you have somewhere to go. You’re walking faster than you normally do, so it might even be a little uncomfortable in the sense that you don’t usually walk this fast.
Be sure to pick a place where you will actually enjoy walking, you're more likely to do it if you are looking forward to it and if it doesn't intimidate you. If we're really strapped for time this can be the easiest way to fit active recovery into our busy life even if it has to be 2 or 3 separate 10-15 min walking sessions a day.
4. Treading water
This is one of my favorite forms of active recovery and there’s 2 ways you can go about this.
1. Get into a pool where the water level is just above waist level or just below chest level. Now simply walk through the water. You can do this with a couple of thin noodles around your torso or even while carrying a weight.
2. Get into a pool that’s deep enough where you can’t touch the floor. Get a floaty or 2 that just barely helps you stay afloat so you have to also pedal your arms and legs to actually help you stay afloat.
5. Hiking or Trail Walking
Depending on the terrain this can quickly become an actual workout. So if you are truly using this for active recovery then be sure to pick a trail that you know well and that is moderately easy for your fitness level.
For safety, this is preferred to be done with a partner. Be sure to bring snacks, water, and a first aid kit.
6. Paddle boarding or kayaking
Another one of my favorites. Other than, loving being by or in any body of water, I also like doing active things with my friends. Paddle boarding and kayaking meets both of these criteria for me. For the record I don't typically where a HR monitor when I do these, I just have fun with it.
Think of active recovery as marinating your body’s tissues by flooding it with oxygen & nutrient rich blood to prepare it for the next hard training session. A martial artist calls delivering oxygen rich blood to the body "Chi" or bringing energy to our body. The consistent practice of active recovery makes you that much more sustainable, healthy, resilient, and durable to the stresses of life, training, and unnecessary repetitive stress injuries.
Remember active recovery should be a super casual & non-intimidating activity that you actually look forward to doing.
Even better if you pick something you enjoy to do with your friends and family.
Clear your mind, nourish your body, and prepare yourself for your next training day or for your next pain free sedentary day.