If you feel like your muscles have been attacked by ninjas, active recovery can help.
We’ve all been there before. You start a new program, have a great workout, and everything is off to an awesome start.
And then, a few days in, you wake up in the morning to find out that apparently ninjas have kidnapped you in the night and beaten every part of your body with very large, very hard sticks.
At least, that’s what it feels like.
Now, a lot of people mistakenly think this is something that happens to new trainees only or people that haven’t worked out in a while, but that’s not true. If you’ve worked out for some time, you also know that’s not true.
I can tell you from experience even the most advanced trainee can experience some serious post-workout soreness; particularly if they’re using a new program, or trying unfamiliar exercises. If you’re training for fat-loss you’re probably changing things up more often and maybe experiencing DOMS with an uncomfortable frequency. Anytime there’s variation–and a good program for fat loss or muscle gain will include variation–DOMS will concur.
So, how to fix it? There are lots of ways, and none of them are mutually exclusive. Today, we’re going to focus on what in my experience is one of the most effective: active recovery.
..rather than waiting around to feel better. It requires you to be active to facilitate recovery.
Here’s why this is important: soreness from training can indicate a lot of things.
Most of the time it’s harmless and just uncomfortable. However, it can raise some interesting questions: should I wait until I feel better to workout again? How long is it going to take to go away? Will this interfere with progress?
Those are all great questions.
You probably don’t need to take time off—you’re almost definitely not injured.
But training through severe DOMS can be a severe pain in the butt…or leg…or chest…or the biceps…or wherever. It can hinder performance, and as a result, compromise the efficacy of your program. This is where active recovery comes in.
I’ll get to the specifics in a moment, but first, some basic training biology. All training creates tiny tears in the muscle tissue. This is what we call microtrauma (1). When these tears are repaired the muscle gets either bigger, stronger, denser, etc.
It’s an important part of the entire process, regardless of whatever your specific fitness goal is.
Nutrients need to be shipped off to the damaged site to help with the repairs. Example: in your super awesome workout, you do a bunch of squats, causing microtrauma in your legs. In order to repair that, you need to get nutrients to your quads. With regard to this example, let’s assume that nutrients are transported to muscle cells only through blood. As a result, if we want to increase the rate muscles are repaired, we need to hasten the delivery of nutrients by increasing the amount of blood flow to the muscles.
And that’s really what active recovery is and what it means: encouraging blood flow (and, therefore, nutrient transport) to the site of damaged muscles.
It might sound incredibly counterintuitive, but if your legs are craaaazy sore from doing tons of squats, one way to make them feel better is with more squats (or some comparable leg exercise). Keep in mind this will certainly “stress” the muscle ever so slightly…but it will create a lot of blood flow to the area, which in turn allows for the necessary nutrient transport.
And that’s active recovery in a nutshell.
Whatever part of your body is hurting, perform light exercise for that body part. You want it to be light, and relatively low on the intensity scale. If your quads hurt from doing a ton of squats you should do a few sets of bodyweight squats. Don’t load the bar with your 1 rep max – just some light work to break through the barrier. Just a few sets can be very beneficial.
Making a habit of active recovery can also bring some balance to your meathead lifestyle. A typical weight training routine runs 3-4 days a week. That leaves a good chunk of the week unoccupied. Rather than just sit and let the muscle soreness stiffen you up, use active recovery to indulge in varying forms of exercise.
All of that said, there are a lot of ways to pursue active recovery. It doesn’t have to be direct exercise for that muscle.
In the sports performance world, athletes like hockey and football players—sports that cause lots of lower body anaerobic muscle damage and therefore doms—often ride a stationary bike the day after games to speed recovery.
If your hamstrings are sore you don’t have to do leg curls—you may find that an hour in a yoga class will not only help your hamstrings feel better, but also bring a host of other benefits with. Or, if your quads are sore, going on a hike might be the thing to do.
For those of us who love to go hard in the gym, framing our off days as active recovery shows us working hard doesn’t always equal better results. Paradoxically, on these days, working too hard acts to our detriment. So something like a yoga class or a hike provides us the opportunity to work hard in other ways, or, to let go of our work ethic altogether, and enjoy the exercise and the process.
In an interview with Tim Ferriss, author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers recounted when he used to ride his bike along the Santa Monica beach, he would hustle his ass off and arrive at his destination in a predictable 43 minutes. Then, one day, Sivers decided he wasn’t going to work so hard. Instead, he aimed to soak in the beauty the beach had to offer, observing the birds overhead, the sun gleaming on the sand. When he looked at his watch after completing the same ride, it read 45 minutes. All that extra hustle, bustle, and stress to save two minutes. This lesson has broad implications, but in the context of your active recovery, remember to enjoy the journey. And you know what, keep this in mind during your regular workouts too.
Like anything, active recovery only works if you actually do it. Yet, what at first will seem like a chore – trying a new activity and going through a steep curve of discomfort – you may find you actually enjoy. That’s right, maybe you like something other than lifting heavy weights, what a concept.
The best part is, not only will active recovery make everything go faster, it’ll also increase your metabolic rate, burn more calories, and just generally improve your mood.
In short, the only way you can go wrong with active recovery is to not do it.