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The Outdoor Athlete Book by Courtenay and Doug Schurman

Train Today for
Tomorrow's Challenges

More Training Info > ACTIVE RECOVERY

By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS Nov, 2003

You may have just finished a marathon, an Ironman or sprint triathlon, century road race, or other long-distance event for which you�ve been training long and hard. Perhaps you are feeling pretty good after your event, or you may be feeling mentally exhausted, spent, and physically run down. Is it best to collapse on a massage table, sit down and breathe, or lie down, or should you keep walking around? Below we look at �active recovery� and its uses, benefits, and applications.

Traditionally Defined

Exercise physiology texts refer to �active recovery� as the cool-down or tapering-off phase of a single bout of exercise. Continued movement (i.e. walking after an intense run, a few light laps in the pool after a race) seems to help prevent muscles from cramping and stiffening up after intense exercise; furthermore, it helps facilitate the recovery process. Active aerobic exercise immediately following extreme exertion accelerates lactate removal and also prevents venous pooling, or the tendency for blood to pool in the lower extremities if an exerciser stops moving immediately. By continuing to move around gently, the muscles continue to pump blood back up to the heart. In contrast, �passive recovery� (i.e. lying down, taking a cool shower, or getting a massage immediately after exertion) does not seem to have the same benefits as active recovery and should be included either after active recovery or as a separate session altogether. �Active recovery� can also be used in the broader sense, after a periodized training phase and not just a single training session.

Active Recovery (Supplemental) Workouts

Experienced alpinists can benefit greatly from active recovery workouts that are significantly reduced in intensity, either later the same day or the following day or two. For trekkers, that might be a very light bike ride or walk for 15-30 minutes the day following a long outing to stretch out and allow the body to work through any residual soreness. For the alpinist, that might be some light reverse wrist curls for the forearms, a gentle swim, or even some endurance core work involving high repetitions and low weight. For the sport climber, that might be a short session on the wall that focuses on climbing keeping arms below shoulder level, footwork, or rest-position traversing, avoiding any flash pump. Marathoners might feel relief by getting on a bicycle for 30 minutes; swimmers might enjoy a walk. Active recovery should typically 1) be low exertion (30-50% MHR) and 2) could successfully involve cross-training, using different muscle groups than those taxed in your primary activity -- say, roller blading for the rock climber, rowing for the cross-country skier, or shooting hoops for the downhill skier.


If you have ever been so sore following a hard workout that your muscles are sore to the touch, you may be a prime candidate for an �active recovery� session such as one of those described above. Not only can such light sessions help you relieve soreness and reduce stiffness, they can also help speed recovery so that you can more quickly return to your normal exercise routine. If your quadriceps are sore to the touch after a ski trip or hike, rather than staying on the couch all day, plan to move for 20-30 minutes at low intensity and include stretching.

When should you absolutely NOT exercise?

You should NOT be exercising if you are:

  1. Injured to such an extent that you are unable to safely train in any way
  2. Pregnant with any contra-indications specific to childbearing
  3. Under specific orders from a medical professional not to
  4. Recovering from recent surgery
  5. Severely overtrained and requiring time to rest
  6. Mentally incapacitated such that you may hurt yourself with overzealous training
  7. Feeling illness below the head (�above the neck, what the heck; below the head, stay in bed.� If you are taking antibiotics, fighting with a chest cold, coughing spasmodically, feverish, or so on, you may delay healing by trying to exercise. It is probably best to take a few days off to rest, rehydrate, and recover).

In many other cases, it probably is okay to do something, even if it is your same workout at a greatly reduced intensity, a brisk or gentle walk, or a cross-training �active rest� sort of activity.

Special case: how light, supervised activity may help even with injury

Strengthening the opposite limb from an injured body part can result in training benefits and overall reduced atrophy for the affected limb. Sometimes the best thing you can do if you suffer from certain types of injury is to start working in whatever range of motion you have available to you in order to prevent severe atrophy, promote recovery, and help you return to your activity as quickly as possible. While there are certainly instances where you will benefit from taking time off, the longer you are inactive, the more atrophy you will experience and the longer you may be away from your activity. Try to remain as active as possible in order to keep your cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems as strong and healthy as you can. By staying active but not overdoing it, you have a stronger chance at a faster, more complete recovery.


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