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Top 6 Exercises For An Effective Active Recovery


Top 6 Exercises For An Effective Active Recovery

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Top 6 Exercises For An Effective Active Recovery

Whether you are just beginning your fitness journey or you’re a seasoned athlete, you’ve probably come across the concept of active recovery. It’s an essential component of a well-balanced exercise regimen, as it may offer an alternative, often superior, approach to healing tired muscles, helping you bounce back with more strength in less time.

Despite being an experienced weekend warrior, I only recently embraced active recovery. My typical routine included designated days for running, strength exercises, and complete rest. However, this year, I chose to consult a trainer to steer clear of injuries now that I’m advancing in age.

My agreement included twice weekly strength workouts to supplement my runs. To my astonishment, my fitness app displayed three sessions.

One was marked “active recovery.” Confused—since this was not part of our initial plan—I wondered, am I to sacrifice one of my cherished rest days? Nonetheless, seeking improvement, I reluctantly decided to proceed.

Let’s just say, the experience turned me into a convert. The recovery session provided just the right amount of gentle activity to alleviate the stiffness in my joints and muscles, all without inducing sweating.

You might wonder about the specifics of active recovery days. Are they preferable to mere rest? How frequently should you engage in them?

We tapped into the knowledge base of personal trainers to shed light on these queries and to uncover their essential exercises for crafting the ultimate active recovery workout.

Comparing Active Recovery to Complete Rest: The Advantages

Why opt for active recovery rather than spending a day lounging? Nicole Winter, CPT and senior coach at Ladder, points out, “By moving, we catalyze blood flow,” echoing the adage, ‘motion is lotion’. It’s this very reasoning that underscores the significance of weaving active recovery into your schedule to bolster the body’s recuperation post rigorous physical exertion.

Those of us familiar with marathon TV sessions know all too well how they can lead to stiff joints. As someone who’s guilty of indulging in continuous Grey’s Anatomy episodes, I’m painfully aware of the hobbling involved during break times. However, active recovery has proven benefits that encourage its practice over pure rest.

1. Enhanced Recovery Speed

An intense workout drains your muscle energy, and it’s during the recovery phase that your body compensates by fortifying muscle tissues. Active recovery expedites this process.

Though resting is a crucial element of fitness, Sean Steerforth, NASM-CPT and stretch practitioner at StretchLab, champions active recovery over mere idleness due to its physiological perks.

“It boosts blood flow, alleviates muscle rigidity, and hastens muscular recovery, all while granting your body the chance to rejuvenate sans the usual workout intensity,” he says.

2. Diminished Soreness and Inflammation

A case of Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can be quite the ordeal, turning sneezing, laughing, or sitting into a discomforting challenge. Paid the price for an intense leg workout? Swollen, tender muscles could be the culprit, and active recovery comes to the rescue.

After pushing your limits during a punishing workout session, lactic acid builds up in your muscles. Clearing this lactate efficiently ameliorates muscle soreness, an area where active recovery trumps passive rest enormously.

Some studies even suggest that active recovery can emulate the anti-inflammatory effects of an ice bath, minus the bone-chilling experience.

3. Ameliorated Flexibility and Movement

Incorporating dynamic stretches—intentional stretching through full motion—into your active recovery regime is essential. Stretching can significantly improve joint mobility, ultimately enhancing flexibility.

While you don’t need the elasticity of an elite gymnast, increased flexibility fosters more efficient movement patterns and minimizes strain risk. Incorporating mobility exercises assists in making muscles suppler, thereby improving overall fitness mechanics and curbing injuries.

Defining Active Recovery

Every workout imposes a degree of physiological stress on our bodies. This stress is beneficial, providing we give our bodies time to heal and adjust to the exertion; the result is returning stronger and more fit. Therefore, the significance of recovery is at par with that of intense workouts.

So, what distinguishes an active recovery workout from a standard session? Effort intensity. According to Winter, active recovery should be about relaxation, not exertion. “It should be perceived as a subdued, minimal-impact session, keeping your heart rate moderately low without any spikes.”

Contrarily, your usual workout routines are about pushing boundaries, moving beyond your comfort zone. However, on active recovery, “Maintain your heart rate at 30 to 60% of your maximal capacity to ensure the activity is beneficial for recovery without posing substantial stress,” advises Steerforth.

Here’s a quick calculation for your max heart rate: Subtract your age from 220. Then, to find your active recovery heart rate zone, multiply that number by 0.3 and 0.6. (For example, if you’re 35, your max heart rate would be roughly 185 beats per minute, so keep your heart rate below 111 beats during active recovery.) Reaching this target shouldn’t require too much effort.

Frequency of Active Recovery

For those aiming for strength gains and fitness improvements, the frequency of active recovery is crucial. Winter integrates a weekly active recovery day for her clients. “This means I set up a 10-minute guided stretching session. It’s a constructive approach to incorporate structured active recovery for those who prefer a regimen,” she notes.

A single day, low-intensity, for just 10 minutes? Indeed, this seems quite manageable.

Deciding on the Best Active Recovery Exercise

The choice of active recovery exercise is personal, but the key is to keep it low intensity.

“For active recovery, turn to LISS, which stands for Low-Intensity Steady State cardio, or combine it with some mobility and dynamic stretching. This could be a casual walk with your pet, a short 15-minute yoga session, or an unhurried bike ride,” Winter suggests.

Not keen on curating your own routine? The following exercises, recommended by both Steerforth and Winter, comprise an exemplary active recovery workout.

Executing the Premier Active Recovery Workout

1. Walking

It’s the essence of simplicity. Whether you choose a scenic outdoor path or a treadmill, Winter asserts, “Walking is an incredibly straightforward and effective method to stimulate circulation, with the added perk of nailing your daily step target.”

  1. Hold your head up. Keep your gaze forward instead of downward to maintain natural posture.
  2. Let go of tension in your shoulders and let your arms swing casually and naturally with a slight bend.
  3. Aim for a brisk walk that’s enough to slightly elevate your heart rate, yet allows you to converse without strain.
  4. Adjust the duration to fit your available time or your step objective.

Plan for at least 7 minutes of stretching.

2. Quad Stretch While Standing

If your legs are feeling the aftermath of a workout, try this stretch for relief. “It’s a great quad stretch that simultaneously improves balance and reduces tightness in your thighs,” Steerforth notes.

  1. Stand with a gap similar to the width of your shoulders between your feet. 
  2. Engage your pelvis by pulling it inwards and firming up your right glutes.
  3. Lift your right foot towards your buttocks, pulling it as tightly as possible.
  4. Ensure your shoulders are drawn back and down. 
  5. For better stability, gaze at a stationary spot on the ground or hold onto something.
  6. Maintain this posture for half a minute, then shift to your other leg.

3. Transitioning from Downward to Upward Dog

Winter recommends this seamless yoga sequence for tuning into your body and alleviating any stiffness: “Flowing from a downward to an upward dog or from a forward bend to a halfway lift can enhance your flexibility post-exercise.”

  1. Begin with your limbs and knees on the floor, spacing your hands and fingers wide and apart, and aligning your legs with your hips.
  2. Arch your hips up and back while keeping your legs as straight as possible to form an inverted “V”.
  3. Take a deep breath and assume a plank by aligning your body straight.
  4. Allow your hips to dip slowly towards the ground as you raise your upper body forward and up.
  5. Draw your shoulders away from your ears and look forward, ensuring your neck is relaxed. This position is known as the upward dog.
  6. Hold it for a moment, then return to the downward dog posture.
  7. Keep up this flow for a minute, resting your knees on the floor if you need to.

4. Hinge and Fold Forward

Steerforth suggests this stretch for easing tension in your lower and middle back as well as your hamstrings, areas that can be strained during workouts. For an additional challenge, extend one arm up when your torso is halfway through the bend.

  1. Your feet should be somewhat wider than shoulder distance apart.
  2. Fold from your hips, keeping a straight backbone and knees softly bent as you reach towards the ground.
  3. With each exhale, let your upper body inch closer to the floor.
  4. On an inhale, raise your hands to just below your knees, lifting your upper body until it’s angled at 90 degrees.
  5. Hold for a breath before sinking back down into the fold.
  6. Continue for half a minute.

5. Specific Stretching for Tight Spots

Identify areas of tightness and gently stretch them, advises Winter. “Combining dynamic and static stretching can help improve blood circulation to the muscles and enhance your flexibility.” Here’s a stretch from Winter for those with sore quadriceps and hamstrings.

  1. Sit down on the ground to prepare for the hurdle stretch.
  2. Fold your right knee, positioning your right foot just behind you.
  3. Stretch out your left leg in front, toes directed upward.
  4. While keeping your torso lifted, reach for your left foot with your left hand until you feel your forward leg stretching.
  5. Hold this position for the duration of three breaths, then switch to the other side.
  6. Sustain this for 30 seconds.

6. Hip-Opening Low Lunge

This hip-opening stretch is perfect for easing stiffness from prolonged sitting, according to Steerforth. “It’s an excellent way to stretch the hip flexors, hamstrings, and even your mid-back.”

  1. Start by kneeling on your right knee with your left leg forward, bent at a 90-degree angle. 
  2. Raise your body while maintaining an upward gaze, leaning forward to feel the stretch in your right hip flexor.
  3. Place your right hand on the ground in line with your left foot, and extend your left arm over your head, creating a straight line with your right arm.
  4. Hold for a single breath.
  5. Switch to the opposing side and continue for 30 seconds.

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