Taking the time to slow down and give a little love to tired, overused muscles works wonders, especially if you have specific goals in mind. And as the fitness industry continues to boom, the importance of active recovery has not been lost on workout enthusiasts.
Over a year ago, New York–based Barry's Bootcamp instructor Rebecca Kennedy launched the super-popular active recovery class A.C.C.E.S.S., and she recently started teaching a new class, SOLID, which combines 20 to 30 minutes of HIIT workouts with 30 to 40 minutes of strength conditioning.
To find out more, we chatted with Rebecca and physical therapist Steven Bazewicz, fitness director at Professional Physical Therapy, about the importance of active recovery and what to do when you have limited time.
What is active recovery?
Active recovery is a low, intense period of movement that centers on keeping the body moving without loading it with resistance or impact. Generally it focuses on specific areas of the body that are in line with your fitness goals. For example, if you're training for a race, active recovery would probably focus on strengthening the muscles in the legs and the core.
"You might take your active recovery day to focus on corrective exercises for problematic areas, stability or mobility of certain joints, flexibility-specific muscles and increase core strength and underachieve muscle groups, especially intrinsic muscle groups," says Rebecca. "It should have a focus on posture, prepare you for more work, keep you injury-free or work through one, and make you feel human again. It's a smile from the inside out."
Why our bodies need active recovery
According to Steven, our bodies adapt to the demands we put on them. When we combine our daily demands with intense exercise, our nervous systems and muscle tissue undergo too much stress. So coming up with a recovery plan is extremely important.
"This planned includes adequate sleep, proper pre- and post-nutrition, and activities that will put our bodies into a healing state," says Steven. "Exercise puts our bodies in a sympathetic state (fight or flight). This is not the kind where we commiserate with our neighbor pushing through their last set of Romanian dead lifts (though we all feel her pain and pride) but the kind that originates in our nervous system with the release of cortisol and epinephrine, also known as adrenaline."
He adds that our sympathetic nervous system increases our heartbeat and constricts our blood vessels, makes our blood pump, speeds up our reflexes, slows down our digestion, and can suppress the immune system.
"This sympathetic state allows for a killer workout," he says. "But without active recovery, our body has difficulty entering into the parasympathetic state (rest and digest) that is necessary to calm this cavalcade of stress hormones coursing through our bodies and allow our muscles to mend, which is ultimately what makes us stronger physically and mentally."
How to practice active recovery
Especially if you're training for something intense, finding time for active recovery isn't easy. If you only have time for the basics, Steven suggests starting the process of moving your body into a parasympathetic state by drinking water, foam rolling, practicing static stretching, or even doing a few yoga poses.
While ideally you should try to devote a few hours per week to active recovery, if you have 15 minutes, Rebecca say it's a good idea to focus on one part of your body like your hips, shoulders, or glutes.
"Choose several ways to work that muscle group, joint, and give it what you need," she says. "Find time daily. Those 15 minutes add up if allocated correctly! If you don't know where to start, see a physical therapist who can help direct you to your specific problematic areas and provide instruction on what exercise will be best."
Remember: Active recovery is like a smile from the inside out. Make time for it.