Taking rest days between workouts is an important part of building muscle. Exercise tears muscle fibers. It's when you rest that things heal and we grow stronger. But that doesn't mean you should spend your off days kicked back on the couch. A better way to rest is by doing something called "active recovery."
Think of active recovery as a sort of middle ground between a good workout and a complete day off. The actual intensity varies based on the shape you're currently in. Someone who's 100 pounds overweight and has a difficult time walking around the block, would do something much less strenuous than an active marathon runner.
There are a few reasons to engage in active recovery. The first is to help mentally. Some people don't feel right unless they exercise every day. By doing something, you get the positive feedback of light exercise without overstressing your recovering muscles.
The second benefit is that it reminds you to keep paying attention to what you eat. Sometimes people use rest days to overindulge. When you get out and do something, it's a reminder to focus on healthy choices and keep your diet under control.
The third benefit is increased blood flow. As blood circulation levels goes up, it increases the amount of lactic acid being removed from the muscle. That helps improve recovery by speeding up muscle healing and causing muscle pain to go away quicker. (In the 1970s these were sometimes called "feeder" workouts because they increased blood flow enough to "feed" extra nutrients to recovering muscles.)
The fourth benefit is increased calorie burn. Even though you're not doing something intense, you'll still burn more calories doing an active recovery session than sitting on your butt. The more calories you burn, the more fat you drop.
You want to elevate your heart rate, but not so much you would be breaking into a sweat. Here are a few activities, that done with the proper intensity, can be good active recovery options.
Taking a walk. You aren't power walking, or trying to set a distance record. Just take a relaxing walk for 15 to 45 minutes. It'll burn a few calories and if you do it during the day, generally boost your mood. If you're in really good shape, consider taking a hike for a little more intensity.
Swimming laps. This is a good activity for people who have painful joints. Don't try to break any speed or distance records. This should be a leisurely swim.
Riding a bike. It's generally a very low impact activity as long as you can avoid a lot of hills. Use your gears if you have them to minimize how much effort you need to put into a recovery ride.
Resistance training can be used for an active recovery day, but the weights should be extremely light. Remember you're not doing this to get a pump. You goal is to increase your rate of circulation. I like to have people practice their form on more complicated exercises this day. Get the movement patterns down properly with light weights, so when you go heavy you'll be doing things the right way. If you start sweating or feeling muscle burn, you're doing too much.
Foam roll to massage sore muscles or workout kinks you may be feeling. You can also use items like a theracane or lacrosse ball to focus on problem areas.
Whatever you do, make sure not to turn an active recovery session into a full fledged workout. If you do, you'll be reducing your muscles ability to heal by over-stressing them. Keep things light and at levels 30 - 40% below normal. Doing cardio you should keep your heart rate at between 55 - 70% or your maximum heart rate.
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