Active Recovery: Maximizing Rest Days

Exercise is important. Seems obvious, right?

What’s less obvious for many athletes is the importance of rest periods. If you’re a hardcore player, you may feel that brief amounts of rest are enough to recover. Or maybe your tennis workout plan calls for rest days, but you feel like you’re wasting time when you could be training.

Whether you’re preparing for your next professional competition or trying to elevate your game without increasing injury risk, you want to get the most out of every period of rest (so you can get the most out of every period of intense training).

And the key to maximizing rest days is a process known as active recovery.

What Is Active Recovery?

Though it sounds a bit like a paradox, the most efficient way to recover from strenuous athletic activity is not to remain still. Activities that soften the muscles, like soaking in a bath or hot tub, are what sports medicine experts call “passive recovery.”

Active recovery, or workout recovery, is when you keep the body active during rest periods with a less intense, easier workout than your normal routine. The reduction in intensity helps relieve stress placed on joints, muscles, and tissues—one of the goals of rest periods—while simultaneously improving muscle strength and growth.

How does active workout recovery work?

Your body moves into what is called an “anaerobic state” when you push above 80 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR). At this point, your production of lactic acid intensifies. Lactic acid increases muscle fatigue and post-workout soreness. If you go from intense exercise to passive recovery, the body can take longer to clear lactic acid build ups than it would with active recovery, greatly extending recovery time.

Active recovery helps reduce MHR and keep your heart rate stable. Instead of going from one extreme to the other, you’re returning to an aerobic physical state that gets lactic acids moving and clears them more easily.

While there are many exercises to aid active workout recovery, most fall under three categories. The first is called a “cool-down phase,” which immediately follows a strenuous workout. The second category is sometimes referred to as “active recovery interval training” and is worked into the training itself. Instead of resting between sets, you’re using that time for active recovery. It could be a brisk walk if you’re new to working out or getting back in shape after a long period off. Professional runners might go for a slow jog. Tennis players could do a few games or rallies at half-speed. The third category is known as “post-competition recovery” and is used following a match or some other event that stresses your body. Instead of taking one or two days off after competition, you use that time for active recovery, like going for a brisk walk or swim.

However you choose to implement active recovery into your routine, you should feel better after exercising than you did before. Doing too much too fast can limit the body’s ability to adapt to your workout regimen, and pushing too hard during periods of active rest can prevent the body from healing—not only reducing effectiveness of the next day’s exercise, but increasing injury risk.

What Are the Benefits of Active Recovery?

Active workout recovery helps stimulate metabolic pathways and “get the blood flowing” to aid in recovery. Even those who disagree with the physical benefits of active rest periods will note that light activity isn’t enough to hinder recovery, and the mental benefits could be substantial.

Many people feel better when they exercise. Movement can elevate mood, in addition to burning a few extra calories. Staying active helps reduce lactic acid buildup in the muscles, which decreases the chance of stiffness and discomfort after working out. Active recovery can prevent fatigue and post-game “crashes” that affect many athletes. And because light activity increases blood flow in muscles and joints, active rest periods also serve to prevent inflammation, maintain a steady heart rate, and improve overall endurance.

If that isn’t enough, staying active makes it easier to stick to a healthy diet and sleep habits.

Active Workout Recovery Tips & Ideas

Focus on activities you enjoy when introducing active workout recovery to your routine.

  • Get a massage (professional massage or self-massage)
  • Go for a walk or light hike (a long mountain trail probably isn’t the best choice unless you’re already in great shape, but walking around the neighborhood or the track at the gym is a great place to start)
  • Go swimming (you can add a little variety by doing different strokes)
  • Do yoga (either at a studio, the gym, or even at home watching videos on YouTube)
  • Complete a stretch routine (at the gym with a trainer or on your own)
  • Go cycling (ride your bike around the neighborhood or a scenic location, or use a stationary bike at the gym)
  • Lift light weights (no more than 30% of your norm, and stop before you reach exhaustion/failure)

Active Recovery Helps Your Game

By giving your body an adequate amount of rest, you can successfully avoid exercise-related soreness, or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which can worsen within two days after your last training session—and persist for several days after that.

The best thing for your body and your game is to keep moving. Active workout recovery ensures that your body gets a healthy amount of rest while supporting faster recovery and reducing the risk of physical injury. Just 6 to 10 minutes of active recovery per day can help repair “micro traumas,” or small muscle tears that occur during exercise or tournaments.

Learn more about how to maximize rest periods and get more from your training with our guide to tennis fitness.

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