‘Active recovery’, what is it and can it help your training?

A quick internet search on the subject of recovery running brings up a lot of articles, mostly over a decade old, from running magazines about the use of recovery runs as part of marathon training. However, it’s a lot tougher to find empirical evidence supporting the idea that there is any physiological change to the rate as which you repair.

When we train we put stress on our body and we can control how much stress we experience through manipulation of training frequency, intensity, duration and the type of training we’re doing. Training stress is important, since this stress is what leads to improvements in performance through neurological and physiological adaptations within our bodies.

The more we perform a given movement the better we become at it. Think of drill and technique work in the pool or on the track, or more specifically in racket and club sports. These neurological adaptations take thousands of repetitions to perfect, but they are a very different kind of adaptation to physiological ones. When it comes to physiological adaptions, simple force production and how much energy you can produce within a muscle or through a joint will come down to your muscle strength and the ability to sustain that output.

Muscle breaks down through stress of exercise, the harder the exercise the more it breaks down. The bodies adaptation to this is to repair muscle fibres thicker and stronger than before, as well as capillarisation, the formation of new blood vessels to network and provide the muscles with more blood during exercise. In short, the engine becomes bigger as does the fuel supply.

Recovery training and recovery products
Active recovery can be split into two types, recovery training and recovery products, such as nutritional supplements and compression wear.

Recovery training
After tough training session’s we experience fatigue. This may be in the form of reduced energy levels, or feeling sluggish. Other signs of fatigue will include muscle/joint stiffness through inflammation or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). If you’ve worked a muscle hard or through a full range of motion, the following day it’s normal to feel a little more restricted in your movements. Fatigued muscle is more vulnerable to further damage, so one function of this inflammatory response is to protect you from causing injury by effectively not allowing you to enter the more extreme ranges of motion where muscle will be at its most lengthened and brittle state. If you perform a stretching routine, take care to do just enough to ensure you can move freely but don’t overdo it. Foam rolling would be a good technique here since it allows massage of muscle tissue and can provide relief without actually lengthening it.

Be careful with the type of training you do following a tough day. If you are experiencing soreness and DOMS, then it’s likely your biomechanics are compromised and you won’t be moving very efficiently. As a result, you may actually end up putting more stress on your joints or weaker muscles through faulty loading as your body tries to shift stress away from the recovering muscles. If you can’t run in good form, then consider a swim or bike session. With the peddle movement on a bike being fixed around the cranks, ensure all contact points on the bike (bum, feet and hands) remain in the same place, it’s more likely you’ll hold a similar to normal position on your bike even when tired.

Being active the day after a hard session is fine, especially with multisport athletes who are pressed for time to train for three sports, but consider the type of session you do. If swimming the day after a harder run type session, consider less kicking and using a pull buoy or even core shorts to take some of the load off. While you can still work at a high aerobic level on the bike, you may struggle to effectively do an interval type session.

When planning your training week, optimise your time by alternating the type of sessions you do and even the sports you do each day so that you can still train effectively. Where possible try to follow up higher intensity days, especially running ones, with more skill and aerobic based swim and bike days.

Recovery Products
The market for products that claim to assist recovery is huge. From supplements, to shakes to clothing and even fancy gadgets that you can strap yourself into, there’s no shortage of things to spend your money on. Before you do, however, consider that part of the recovery process and the reason we feel tired is because when we are fatigued from training our bodies are in a less optimal state for performance. High training stress can also be met with reduced immune system too. Time is probably the most important factor in letting your body recover and second to that sleep quality, since this can have a huge impact on how well we recover.

Despite claims of various equipment and nutritional products on the market to “speed up recovery”, this isn’t strictly true. The body will always look to heal at the fastest rate possible given and optimal environment. Reduced recovery time is usually down to a less than ideal recovery strategy, such as not getting enough sleep, or poor nutrition. So, in fact most claims linked to improved recovery times, aren’t actually accelerating recovery beyond the body’s capabilities, but instead just allowing that optimal environment to exist.

Does this mean they don’t work? Of course not. Outside of professional athletes, who have to sacrifice a lot to create that optimal lifestyle, most people aren’t able to optimise their training and recovery because we have to deal with things like normal jobs and family life. This is where recovery products can help regain some of that lost edge. However, it’s not an excuse to simply buy every product going, since your best chance of recovery will always be to optimise your rest and nutrition as best you can.

Compression garments, such as tights, socks or even inflatable/dynamic compression equipment are all popular with athletes who need to reduce some of the post-training inflammation and soreness so they can function, and there’s some interesting research behind them too.

When it comes to nutritional influences on recovery, all of our bodies nutritional requirements can be met through a good diet. But recovery supplements, shakes, bars etc, just contain key nutrients that we require for recovery. These can be useful if pushed for time after training sessions and help you stay on track with your diet. However, long term taking time to plan and prep meals will always give you the optimal control of what you’re eating. Don’t get carried away with them through, research already shows that muscle repair time is not linear to protein intake and that there is a significant drop off in the rate of muscle repair beyond the optimal amounts. Taking twice as much protein will not make you recover twice as quickly.

Recovery is an important step to improvement in performance as well as ensuring reduced injury risk. Active recovery, when utilised properly, can be a great tool for ensuring your training is completed effectively, sustaining training volume while also recovering. While there are lots of products available to the modern athlete to assist this process, it should be used in conjunction with a good nutrition strategy, not instead of one.

Coach Phil

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