Optimal recovery is an extremely complex process because there are so many interrelated factors involved.
Recovery rates are often highly individualised based on factors such as your genetics, your current training status, training history, nutrition, your sleep quality and quantity, and your prevailing stress levels (in all in its forms, not just exercise).
READ MORE: 5 Ways You’re Limiting Recovery
While you certainly could benefit from a complete day off, this should be the exception, not the norm. In general, a complete rest day that is devoid of any activity probably isn’t necessary. More importantly, it could probably do more harm than good.
You obviously don’t want to keep overloading your body day in and day out because you’ll eventually burn out or become overtrained.
On the other hand, a body that has endured intense training for six days in a row probably won’t react positively to a lack of movement on the seventh day.
READ MORE: Adrenal Burnout And The Impact Of Exercise
The ideal off day
I’m sure you’ve felt stiffer and more sore the day after a rest day than you did on the rest day itself? It’s a common experience for committed athletes because, without movement, joints and soft tissue seize up and become immobile.
When muscles remain unused for prolonged periods, muscle fibres stop sliding smoothly. Inactivity also shuts off the muscle pump action needed to drive the lymphatic system that is so important for optimal recovery.
Take an entire day off to ‘sloth’ on the couch, binge watching the latest series and you’ll likely feel sluggish, slow and creaky the day after.
As such, active recovery is the ideal form of rest and recuperation, provided your sleep is on point. When it comes to recovery, an ‘active’ approach means maintaining some form of movement to promote, sustain and even enhance mobility, maintain soft tissue suppleness, and ensure efficient joint function.
READ MORE: Recovery. What You Should Do On Rest Days
Active recovery options
This can be as simple as a few minutes of mobility drills, stretching and foam rolling on your day off. It’s an approach advocated by renowned physical therapist and CrossFit coach, Dr Kelly Starrett, through his ‘no days off’ philosophy.
He recommends spending at least 10 minutes a day on mobilising joints and the surrounding muscles, particularly those where niggles or ‘hot spots’ exist. And he suggests upping the accessory work on the days you don’t train to help facilitate the recovery process through movement.
According to Starrett, this can include foam rolling, soft tissue work with balls and other rollers, and ‘band flossing’ (it is worth researching this approach on Google).
These techniques help to break up adhesions through the pressure applied and helps muscles relax and releases tightness.
When combined with dynamic stretching and mobility work, soft tissue becomes more pliable, which is key to restoring function and improving recovery.
You can also included dry needling, recovery massages, and hot-cold contrasting (saunas or hot showers, and complete submersion in ice baths) on active recovery days. These techniques are also highly effective at reducing tightness, restoring function and improving circulation.
Other types of movement suitable for active recovery days include light cardiovascular activity like walking, yoga, an easy run or ride, rowing or a swim. This movement helps to promote blood flow, which is essential for the regeneration of new muscle and connective tissue to aid and facilitate repair and recovery.
The fundamental consideration is that your chosen activity for your active rest must be restorative. Hitting the gym for a high-intensity full-body metcon after six days of hardcore training is not what your body needs.
READ MORE: Post-Workout Recovery Smoothie
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.