How Active Recovery Works
Arright, hands up, who has raced hard enough to have to walk down the stairs backwards? Yeah, me too. When that happens, it seems like the most important thing to do for recovery is find the nearest couch and stay planted. Forever. Or at least until all the ice in the beer cooler next to the couch has melted. What is definitely counter intuitive is the idea of active recovery. Active?! Sounds ridiculous, but then I tried it. And the coaches are right, it really can help.
How I Used Active Recovery to Learn How to Walk Again
The run course at XTERRA Tahoe CIty is hard. You start climbing a steep, paved road that switches to steep, rocky singletrack. There is a brief respite at the top, then what goes up, must go down. A steep, quad smashing descent on loose, rocky road and pavement. Of course, that all follows a couple hours of mountain biking. My legs were done. My left knee started to really hurt during the descent, and trying to compensate, my imbalanced gait hurt my right calf, already stressed from the climb. Delayed onset muscle soreness had no delay for me. I hurt at the finish line. But three days later, I was healed. Fighting the instinct to collapse was the key.
The following day I went for a walk. About 30 minutes. A little shorter would have been better, but my knee and calf required a slower pace, and maybe trails were not such a good idea. But the forest was good because of the trees. They have been proven to help brain function and mood. I felt refreshed physically and mentally. The second day after the race I repeated my recovery walk. Maffetone describes walking as an ideal cross training tool for racers because it can help recovery. The third day I went for a short walk/jog keeping a close eye on heart rate and muscle soreness, which was quickly decreasing. It worked OK. A bike ride would have been better, but I ran out of time after my afternoon recovery nap. More on passive recovery later. The next day I got back on the bike for an easy 90 minute spin. It felt great, and I successfully resisted the urge to do more. Now I’m ready to train again. Even my sleep and HRV have returned to normal.
Why I Think it Works
Using the Recovery Issues:
For some people 30 minutes of exercise is a lot. But if you race, a 30 minute walk is very easy, so it does not add any fatigue to what you’ve already done.
Walking directs more circulation to stressed muscles. More nutrients and less waste products from metabolism and repair means faster recovery than doing nothing.
Like fatigue, there isn’t enough activity to deplete storage carbohydrate, which means it won’t take any longer to rebuild the stores emptied by a long race.
If you take your walk in a place of natural beauty, you can benefit even more. The brain likes blood nutrients, and oxygen, so a walk in the forest, or anywhere there is a lot of O2 producing vegetation can help a lot.
It’s very refreshing to be doing something, but the lower intensity relieves stress, especially if you have a mild addiction to exercise.
Other Forms of Active Recovery
Swimming in the way that walking is different from running would also help. Maybe more like floating around. I didn’t try this because drifting around in the freezing water of an alpine lake did not appeal. If you’re a fan of cold therapy, it might help. But in a warm climate, or a pool…
Yoga if done in a restorative manner could help. I was too sore to want to risk stretching stressed muscles. If I had been practicing regularly, I could scale it back.
Foam rolling would be the same as yoga. Helpful if you already know what you’re doing. I don’t, so I’m saving it for later.
In the end, I’m not going down the stairs backwards. Instead I’m motivated to train. Enough blogging, time for a nice run in the forest!