Proven benefits: new-found energy, enthusiasm and PBs on your get-after-it days.
Maybe you're aware of the breakneck pace that world marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge can hold during a 26.2-mile race: 4 minutes and 34 seconds per mile. (If not, then let that soak in for a minute. Or four.) But you might not be aware of another, even more important Kipchoge stat: the nearly 9-minute-mile pace he reportedly maintains during his recovery runs. Yeah, that's, like, twice as slow as his race pace.
Now take a minute to think about your recovery style. You likely fall into one of two camps: type As who refuse to let up, thinking less effort means less progress (you know who you are), and type Be-Chills who think a light workout means a good, long stretch on the couch. But as that Kipchoge example shows, there's actually a middle ground for active recovery.
"No matter who you are—a beginner or advanced athlete or exerciser—you should be building in one or two proper recovery days per week, where you stay between 50 and 60 percent of your max effort", says Sue Falsone, a clinical specialist in sports physiotherapy and Nike Performance Council member who specialises in recovery (more on how to gauge that effort soon). Falsone dubs these sessions "regen days", because the performance benefits they yield actually help your body regenerate faster and stronger.
The Reasons for Real Recovery
All the badass work you do in the gym or on the pavement isn't going to go nearly as far if you don't deliberately and regularly pull back. "These light, slow workouts build our aerobic capacity and give our cardiovascular system the foundation it needs to take it up to fifth gear", explains Falsone. If you can't establish and hold slow-moving first and second gears, she says, your all-out fifth gear won't be as powerful or as easy to access.
Your body also needs this mix of light and hard workouts if you want it to bounce back from the latter fast, says Romain Meeusen, PhD, the head of the department of human physiology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and a specialist in exercise physiology, training and sports physiotherapy. If you're going hard and semi-hard all the time, you never have the opportunity to repair and rebuild, says Meeusen. Easy sessions give you that chance, allowing your body to increase the mitochondria and capillaries in its muscles to make you fitter while still building your foundational endurance. (Doing nothing and camping on the sofa, however, robs you of this benefit and only makes you stiffer.) A cathartic, leisurely workout gives your mind a break from the demands of high intensity too, adds Meeusen.
"No matter who you are—a beginner or advanced athlete or exerciser—you should be building in one or two proper recovery days per week, where you stay between 50 and 60 percent of your max effort".
Nike Performance Council Member
What happens if you keep pushing it, even a little, during days that should be light? You'll start to notice signs of breakdown, says Falsone. They could come in the form of injuries, weight gain (possibly because of hormonal changes), a weakened immune system, less and worse sleep and mental burnout from a sport or activity you love. In short, "You'll run yourself into the ground", she says.
These tips will help you dial in your regen days and avoid doing too much (or too little).
01. Plot out your training week.
Creating a roadmap of days when you'll push and pull back not only gives you scheduled permission to go easy—it also helps you see the magic in doing so, says Falsone. Now you can look at your week and understand that, "I'm doing that recovery run on Wednesday because I should be going all out for those Tuesday sprints. And I'll have the juice to give more during my strength session on Thursday", she explains. The bonus? Accountability.
Here's a one-size-fits-all schedule that Falsone recommends:
· Monday: Work hard
· Tuesday: Go hard again
· Wednesday: Regen day*
· Thursday: Dial it back up
· Friday: Last hard workout of the week
· Saturday: Regen day*
· Sunday: Go for a walk or bike ride or do something fun (and safely physically distanced) with a friend or family member. "This day is simply about being active and extending your healthy lifestyle into everything that you do", says Falsone. It's a nice reset before another Monday.
*If you're feeling sore from those hard days, you'll recover faster if on your regen day you do a light version of the same workout that left you achy. This lessens fatigue in the muscles you worked and helps them recover faster than if you were to target other muscles or not work out at all, according to a study published in "PLOS One".
02. Check your stats—and be ready to recalibrate.
Your effort on regen days should be low enough to allow for repair and recharging, but not so low that you're not working at all. The simple way to hit that sweet spot: If you wear a heart-rate monitor (a smartwatch usually counts), ensure that you're in a very light or light zone, which is typically between 50 to 60 percent of your maximum heart rate. If you're tech-free, think of your effort on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being lying on the couch and 10 being lying-on-the-floor exhausted, and stay at an easy-breezy 4 or 5, tops, says Falsone.
Throughout your session, adjust your effort as needed. "The first 10 to 15 minutes will tell you what your body needs to do", says Meeusen. Be mindful of physical cues telling you to dial it down a notch, like aches, pain or heavy breathing, or mental red flags, like consistently saying to yourself, "This workout sucks". On the flip side, if you feel like you're not doing much of anything, you may need to give a smidge more.
03. Create a distinct mood.
Nailing a truly easy effort means building a recovery vibe that's different from your get-after-it days, says Falsone. That can start with your playlist. "Music is a really good way to slow down—songs at, for instance, 100 beats per minute—because you're going to match the pace of what you're listening to", she says.
You can also dress the part. Research suggests that what you wear sends signals to your brain about how to feel and act. (For example, a group of five studies published in "Social Psychological and Personality Science" found that wearing formal clothing made people feel more powerful and assertive.) Give your mind the message to slow down by swapping your racing vest for a comfy tee or your HIIT-class sneaks for a comfy lifestyle pair. Or better yet, if you aren't running, go barefoot, which shifts the focus to balance and awareness of your body in space, says Falsone.
Lastly, think about matching your regen day to a serene backdrop, says Meeusen. It's far easier to hit a peaceful pace on a quiet, picturesque trail than at the track where you ripped sprints just the other day.
Once you prioritise perfectly easy days, Falsone says you create the kind of fitness longevity that will have you getting after it for decades to come. We'll turn down for that.
Words: Marissa Stephenson
Illustration: Xoana Herrera