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What is active recovery?

When you're done with your big event, hard workout, or season championship, do you want to sit around and rest for recovery? If you're feeling stiff, sore, or tired, you might think you do, but not everyone benefits from that.


Active recovery is an alternative method using low intensity movement to increase blood flow to your muscles that is beneficial to some, and may be superior than passive resting. It can be utilized between exercises to prepare your body for the next subsequent performance. Some will refer to active recovery as their off day, but in this post, we will be referring to it between training sets.


The research is overall inconclusive, but here is a run down of what may be beneficial. You're going to need to test it for yourself and see what recover method is best for you.


Active recovery has been used as a method to accelerate recovery during intense exercise. In some studies, it has been shown to improve performance in exercises that follow. In other studies, the results are not the same.


There are a few different mechanisms of theory of how active recovery helps.


One study suggests that active recovery improves processing of your central nervous system, rather than having an effect on the muscle. In this study, maximal voluntary contraction of the muscle was not effected, so the increase in overall performance is questionable.


Several studies suggest that active recovery has a hormonal and metabolic response following high intensity exercise. This normal effect may benefit our bodies ability to convert fat and carbohydrates into energy. However, passive recovery, which is just basically resting, may be beneficial for our body to utilize sugar as energy. Active and passive recovery have different effects on our hormonal and metabolic responses.


Keeping the recovery exercise specific to the exercises completed, which should also be specific to the goal of the athlete, seems to enhance recovery along with facilitating lactate removal. Lactate accumulation determines how long you can work hard. Elite athletes are efficient at keeping lactate accumulation low. When lactate levels rise, that is when fatigue sets in and the need to stop occurs. Expediting the removal of lactate does not affect athletic performance, but does allow the athlete to participate for an increased duration.


What has been found about lactate removal, is that self paced active recovery is best. That means that the athlete chooses the intensity of the recovery activity. This contributes to the idea that each individual has a different response, and that each athlete needs to find how they best utilize active recovery.


When looking at recovery after completion of exercise, it is found to be beneficial to perform active recovery with the same muscles that were fatigued during the workout. Meaning, if you trained your lower body, then you should do a lower body exercise for active recovery rather than an upper body exercise.


Something that was found to be consistent across multiple studies was that active recovery had positive psychological outcomes. An athletes perception of feeling more rested or better prepared may positively influence athletic performance.


When looking across multiple studies, the most consistent parameter was performing active recovery for 6-10 minutes. This showed the best effect on performance, but intensity level was undetermined. It also concluded that lactate removal was an unreliable marker. Overall, post exercise active recovery had weak evidence regarding its effect on performance.


Further research for reliable and accurate markers of fatigue, physiological recovery, and performance are needed to determine the effect of active recovery. Active recovery may best be utilized with and individualized program specific to that athlete and their activity, and the primary positive outcomes of active recovery appear to be related to maintenance rather than performance improvement.


As of the writing of this, active recovery has potential to be beneficial, but it appears that each individual athlete may have a different response, and each individual athlete will respond best to different parameters. The theory of using increased blood flow to stimulate the central nervous system, cleanse metabolic byproducts from muscles, and have positive effects on an athletes psychology are sound in principle, but the research has not been able to confirm or deny these.


Utilizing active recovery can be incorporated easily without any increased cost, and at most minimal increase in time. Try it out, track how you feel and perform, and mix it up to compare what works best for you. No two bodies are the same, so no two methods should be the same. #snowbeastperformance

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