220 in 2020 · fitness · rest

In favour of active rest

Lily and Rosie (my new kittens) have a good balance of hard play, active rest, and total rest. Image description: Rosie on cat scratcher/lounger getting ready to swat Lily, sitting on the floor beside her, with her paw.

Years ago, when I was new to triathlon, I used to train with groups for my swimming and running. Once, two days after some of my swim group had done the Around the Bay 30K (way before I ever thought I would do it myself, which I ultimately did), someone talked about how they had gone for a “light run” the next day. And here they were, back in the pool already. It seemed unbelievable to me that anyone would forgo a total rest day after running 30K. The reason they did it was to get the blood flowing to their tired legs. This approach to recovery is known as “active rest” or “active recovery.”

I used to feel guilty about that sort of thing and blogged about it way back in 2014. Recognizing the importance of rest days and my own struggles to feel okay about actual rest (for myself — I am not trying to be judgmental here about full-on rest), I blogged about taking active rest instead of total rest. But at the time, it wasn’t really incorporated into my workout life as rest or recovery, it was just that I didn’t like taking days off.

Six and a half (!!) years later, I still don’t often take a total rest day. But I vary the intensity of my workouts and take a more conscious approach to switching it up. I do this both with respect to the same activity — harder and easier runs, gentler and more strenuous yoga sessions, for example. And I also do this across my various activities–incorporating a mix of running, Superhero workouts, yoga (with and without Adriene), and walking. Especially since COVID but mostly since joining the 220 in 2020 group, it’s become important for me to do some sort of movement almost every day. That fits perfectly with the idea of active rest or active recovery. After a particularly demanding workout with Alex, I might make sure that if running in on my agenda the next day I take it easy on my run. That’s fine. My objective is to get out the door. Or if I don’t want to go anywhere (COVID has brought out the recluse in me some days), then I’ll do some yoga. A little bit of movement goes a long way to lifting my energy.

The most important thing about active recovery is that it is supposed to be a dialing-down. My personal trainer used to consider all yoga rest, but that’s because he’d never done a power yoga class. Even a demanding flow class wouldn’t really count as an active recovery workout because it’s too much exertion. So if you are going to be honest about incorporating active rest into your program, the experts recommend against using it to sneak in another intense workout under the guise of “active rest.”

This article, “11 of the best activities to do on active recovery days,” explains: “an active recovery day features easy workouts equivalent to no more than 60 to 70 percent of your maximum effort (low to moderate intensity). For example, if you’re training for a marathon, you can use an active recovery day as an opportunity to walk a few easy miles or take a gentle yoga class to work on flexibility.”

I’m also a big fan of listening to my body, and have become a lot more intuitive about my workouts over the years. Though I have a general routine (running 3x a week, Superhero workout 3x a week, yoga several times a week), I know when to back off completely and perhaps do restorative or bedtime yoga and have a nap instead of anything else.

The upshot here is that all high intensity all the time is not a good strategy for anyone. It will result in burnout. But a little bit of movement even on the rest days is fine, and may be exactly what you need. This is not to say that total rest is something to avoid. It’s all a matter of striking the right balance.

If you’re interested in giving active recovery or active rest a try, here’s an article that explains how you can make a whole day of it.

Six and a half years ago I asked, “How do you do rest and active recovery?” At the time, I wanted to hear from people who did it “better than I” did. Today I am comfortable with how I do it and I’m always interested in hearing others’ experiences. Have a great weekend!

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