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A Body In Motion: The Benefits of Active Recovery

Anyone who does intense workouts 4 days or more a week on a consistent basis is bound to experience serious muscle fatigue, or what is referred to as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). This is particularly true if your exercise program incorporates heavy strength training with intense cardio, and metabolic training without allowing the body to recover. Not only will you suffer from fatigue, you could be hindering your progress. Sure you might think that because you have a particular split you are exempt from this. For example, you do legs on Monday, chest, biceps and triceps on Tuesday, etc.; you would think that this allows certain muscle groups to rest on those days that you work others. While there is some truth to that, without the proper recovery or rest, it is only a matter of time before you begin to suffer from the fatigue brought on by what we call overtraining.

There are still some experts who suggest that you allow at least two days of rest, that is, not working out at all to allow the body to recover. However, there are others who recommend that instead of a passive type of recovery, which can also be counter-productive, you should engage in active recovery. That is, lower intensity exercises that allow the body to recover, while still moving. Things like stretching, especially dynamic stretching (stretches performed with movement), are among the best forms of active recovery in my book. This is very important since most of us don’t do enough stretching before and after we workout. This is due in large part to the fact that most people have just enough time to devote to the workout itself, and don’t have much time for stretching. In fact, out of ten personal trainers that I asked about the amount of time they dedicate to stretching/flexibility, only 3 out of 10 said that they stretch regularly. The number one reason was time constraints. Now if fitness professionals are having trouble finding time for flexibility training, then imagine that of the average person. Most admit that it is a vicious cycle that over time can impede performance. Certified Trainer Debbi Paige from Complete Fitness in New York, admits that she doesn’t always have the time stretch before workouts. However, she says that anytime she has a session with a client they go through a series of dynamic stretches. “I will typically move them through a timed warm up consisting of some of the basic functional movements, making sure to emphasize full range of motion.” Debbi explains.

Recovery is key whether you take a few minutes to stretch before and after a workout or not. After all, achieving most fitness goals requires putting the muscles and joints through a certain amount of trauma, and you need to allow time for them to recover. I can understand why some of you are tempted to do no exercising on your rest days, AND at the same time I know what its like to be that gym rat for whom a day of being sedentary can be absolute torture! This is why I advocate using at least one rest day as a day to focus on an active recovery workout. I’m not alone either; many fitness experts are beginning to extol the virtues of active recovery over passive recovery. You can do an entire 30-45 minute active recovery workout or you can do one thing like biking, take a brisk walk or do yoga, or Tai Chi. I personally like to use my recovery days to focus on flexibility. This helps me to get the most out my training on the days that I do my more intense workouts.

Many athletes know the importance of things like dynamic and PNF [Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation] stretching for optimal performance in sports. So should this be any different for the average Joe? The answer is “no”. We need to be just as concerned with our performance in the gym. Getting the results we seek, while avoiding injuries, is just as important for the average Joe as it is for athletes. This is why rest and recovery is so essential for achieving whatever your fitness goals might be, especially hypertrophy (muscle growth). Fitness Coach Taylor Toney from Rockland, NY was a basketball player in high school, and college. “As an athlete, I learned that I needed to stay properly stretched throughout my workout to help prevent injury…this is also what I recommend to all of my clients.” he says with conviction. Taylor also takes some time after workouts to foam roll, walk the treadmill and do something like the whirlpool or sauna to relax the muscles. If you don’t have that kind of time after a regular workout, then that would be a perfect thing to do on your active recovery day.

I had this epiphany one day while training one of my long time clients. Let’s call her Amy. She showed up for her session, and before we started, she complained of muscle fatigue and general symptoms of DOMS. This particular client had completely transformed her body, losing over 100 pounds, and is now in amazing shape. Amy works with me 2-3 times a week, and on other days she takes kickboxing, and Boot Camp classes. Obviously, this is a person who is not only dedicated to keeping the weight off, but she genuinely enjoys working out! Now, even though I make it a habit to do a dynamic warm-up with my clients, stretching them afterwards isn’t always feasible. Amy, like most people, rarely stretches on her own, so seeing how Amy was feeling, I totally threw out the workout I had planned for her that day. Instead, we focused on dynamic movement, and flexibility; dedicating the entire workout to Active Recovery. By the end of it, she felt a lot better, and the next session, her performance was incredible! It really got me thinking that this kind of workout should be a regular part of any serious exercise regimen.

Even if you don’t want to sacrifice an entire workout every week, I recommend doing at least two workouts a month where all you do focus on is active recovery [Click for example of an Active Recovery Workout]. Perhaps you’d rather just do one thing as I mentioned earlier, like Yoga or bike riding, that’s okay! These low impact examples are also excellent ways to remain active as your body recovers from your days of intense exercise. Yes, sometimes you just need to take a day once in a while to completely rest. However, while overtraining can be a real “pain”, passive recovery on a regular basis can also be counterproductive. Active recovery is that all-important middle ground.

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