Making the Most of “Recovery” Days

CrossFit is a physical training methodology that emphasizes performing a wide range of athletic tasks at high levels of intensity.  Within the CrossFit training context, the term “intensity” is a specific reference to “power” output, and it carries with it a connotation that alludes to aggressiveness.  It is not uncommon for CrossFit participants to approach training sessions and individual WODs, day in and day out, with a certain ferocity, and this inclination can be taken to an unhealthy extreme: seven consecutive days of training at maximal effort.  The problem with this approach to training—however well intentioned—is that it leaves no room for “recovery”.

What we know about optimizing physiological performance today, in 2019, far exceeds what we knew thirty years ago, and we now recognize that one thing all productive and sustainable physical training platforms share is adequate accommodation for recovery.  The CrossFit training context is no exception to this, and if we look behind the scenes at the training practices of the best athletes and fittest humans in the world, we will find an abundance of time devoted each day, each week, each month, and each season to recovery.

Recovery itself, though, is not a one dimensional training mechanism.  Things like sleep, nutrition, stress management, and movement quality combine to create a comprehensive portrait of recovery.  In this article, I will provide a CrossFit participant’s guide to what we call “active recovery” practices.  After defining the concept of “active recovery”, I will discuss the most profitable ways to approach same.

Each time humans perform physically, in any training context, healthy muscles, ligaments, tendons, and the individual fibers that comprise the body’s musculoskeletal infrastructure are strained, torn, and/or otherwise irritated on a microscopic level.  These tiny aggravations do not just burden the body physically; they also take a mental toll on the brain, as fatigue and soreness begin to manifest.  In order for physical adaptations to take hold, given such circumstances, these periods of pushing the body to the point of exhaustion must be paired with rest windows, during which the body can repair itself.  In a very generic sense, “recovery” refers to behaviors that facilitate healing.  When we further qualify the term “recovery” by adding to it the modifier “active”, we are referring to dynamic physical behaviors that facilitate healing, versus idle or static physical conduct.

It can be extremely tempting to spend off/rest/recovery days lying around, exerting the least amount of physical effort possible.  But sports science has come a long way in the past few decades, and along with periods of complete relaxation, healing bodies need movement—even during rest days.  Moreover, the need for movement on rest days only increases with age.  As we get older, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (“DOMS”) can become not only a painful reality, but a debilitating one.

Movement, however, is still a very broad concept, and too vague a criterion on which to base an active recovery session.  Active recovery can be done very poorly, and in a way that is counterproductive.  And although active recovery practices should be tailored to meet the unique needs of each individual athlete, I have found that the following parameters can be useful for structuring a productive active recovery session.

The first priority of an active recovery session is to increase blood flow throughout the entire body.  The best way to accomplish this is by keeping the body in near continuous motion.  That is not to say we want to spike the body’s heart rate, though.  In fact, regulating the heart rate is also important, and with that in mind, any external loading employed during an active recovery session should be kept to a minimum.  Incorporating sufficient stimulus to activate certain muscles and groups of muscles can be highly productive in the active recovery context, but overdoing it—with respect to loading—can shock the body’s nervous systems.  Such a result would disrupt and hinder the body’s attempts to repair itself.

Regarding the types of movements that should be performed during active recovery sessions, those that require exploring the body’s full functional range of motion are preferred.  One of the best ways to reduce or minimize soreness is to slowly work the body into deep, functional positions, like the bottom position of an air squat or pushup.  Along with range of motion, coordination also matters during active recovery sessions.  Instead of aimlessly bouncing into and out of different positions, athletes should focus on keeping their midlines taut and cuing each individual muscle and body part, in proper sequence.  Active recovery sessions are the perfect opportunities for athletes to learn how to “feel” their way through movements that they rarely think about and often take for granted.

Towards the end of any active recovery session, which should last twenty to sixty minutes, athletes should take time to stretch, roll out, and address lingering mobility and flexibility limitations that get neglected throughout the week.  This is the appropriate time to work on expanding the body’s functional range of motion beyond its current capacity: while the body is warm and loose from any preceding exercise, and need not be subjected to further loading.

The beautiful thing about active recovery is that it can be done away from the physical premises of the gym, so there is no excuse to ignore it.  On the other hand, those individuals that struggle with accountability at home, and need to physically be at the gym, can still take advantage of recovery by approaching the daily WODs once or twice a week with these guidelines in mind.  After two or three days of training at maximal effort, the body is exhausted and in need of time to heal.  Relaxation plays a critical role in the healing process, but prolonged or absolute idleness are counterproductive.  By engaging in continuous (but regulated) functional movement at low loading for an hour or less, a couple times a week, athletes facilitate physiological healing processes and put themselves in better positions to reach their fitness goals.

Coach Brian
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