Active Recovery 101



Recovery is the unsung hero of performance development. Ask any NFL player on a bye week: maximizing your recovery times so that you can get back in the weight room or out on the field is a huge advantage. Managing when to rest, when to take it easy, and when to get back out there and go 100% is a product of how well you manage your post- and pre-training maintenance.

Coach Devan McConnell, Director of Sports Performance at UMass Lowell and Volt Advisory Board Member, prioritizes his recovery methods to keep his athletes improving.

“Recovery is probably the most important, and most overlooked component of physical development. Everyone knows that to get better, you have to work hard. But many forget that from a physiological perspective, you really only improve when you adequately recover from that hard work. If you don’t allow for proper recovery and regeneration, you simply can’t realize the improvements you have worked so hard to attain.”

While they may sound similar at first, recovery and rest are two distinguishable methods of repairing the body. Rest is the absence of activity, and the presence of hammocks or Netflix. Recovery, on the other hand, is directed activity to help promote healing, adaptation, and a return to a steady state. Recovery begins immediately after any training session, with a goal to improve the repair of muscle tissue and not continue breaking it down. Just like training, recovery requires planning and dedication. Just look at how Coach McConnell organizes his athletes’ recovery process:

“For our players on the UMass Lowell Hockey team, we always make sure to have a post-workout drink with carbs and protein (chocolate milk), we foam roll and stretch, and we stress the importance of sleep after practice, games, and training. Our players strive for 10 hours of sleep per night. These are the key components when it comes to recovery, and are crucial if you want to perform at your best.”

The 1-2 days immediately following a tough training session are when muscle stiffness and tissue restriction can build up, which doesn’t bode well for the athlete that plans to post up on the couch and crush a few seasons of Game of Thrones. But these post-training days are crucial for recovery, and not moving (complete rest) can actually be disadvantageous to your body. Movement is a daily need, and staying active every day is not only good for your performance, but for your longevity as well. Engaging in light forms of exercise or activity—also known as active recovery—can help stave off stiffness and encourage your body’s natural regeneration process.

While you may have days off from training, there are no days off when it comes to taking care of your body. This starts with sleeping and eating the right amounts. No recovery method will save you from staggering sleep debt or poor dietary choices—these are performance killers that no amount of foam-rolling can cure. In addition to eating well and sleeping enough, giving your brain a break on the days between training sessions is also an important piece of the recovery puzzle. Implementing light, fun activities on your off-days can help maintain your body, get your blood flowing, and give your mind some freedom from the intensity of training. Easy hikes, walking in the park, going for an easy swim, or even doing yoga are quality ways to de-stress and recover from the demands of routine training. This can give you not only a physical change of scenery, but a mental one as well.

Common active recovery methods include some light aerobic activity. It’s important to steer clear of any intense exercise during recovery—if you challenge your muscles too much when they are trying to repair themselves, they will get tasked with demands that only further their breakdown. Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to intense or vigorous activity, more isn’t always better. In active recovery, your only aim is to get the heart pumping blood to your working muscles. Cardiovascular activity can help get more oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, remove waste products from broken-down muscle tissue, and remove stress hormones to increase the rate of repair and regeneration. For some, going for a jog with sore legs is out of the question, but finding a lower-impact aerobic machine can give you the same cardiovascular recovery benefits. Spin bikes, ellipticals, and rowing ergs are all simple tools that provide very little impact on the joints and legs. And foam-rolling is an easy way to break up stiff muscle tissue and help increase blood flow to deep muscle tissue. Rolling out a tight lat may not sound fun when you start, but after ten minutes you should be right as rain and, most importantly, setting yourself up for another good training day.

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Jace Derwin, CSCS, RSCC, is the Head of Performance Training at Volt Athletics and is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. Jace manages Volt program design, content development, and educational resources for schools, clubs, and organizations. Jace is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® (CSCS®) and holds a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from Seattle Pacific University. Follow Jace on Twitter @VoltCoachJace.