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.

Keep Moving

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!


About vegpedlr

Plant powered off-road triathlete

Posted on June 30, 2012, in Training and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Hey, Vegpedlr. I have been kinda sorta using the Maffetone method. I am 45 and have been keeping my heart rate at around 130 to 145 during my runs. Not quite pure Maffetone, but I have been running much slower than before.

    I have to admit, there’s always that voice saying, “If you want to race fast, you must run fast.” But right now, I am ignoring that voice and listening to the Maffetone voice, the one that says, “Build aerobic capacity.”

    • I have always been a bit skeptical about a heart rate range based on a simple formula. But I tried it on faith and the example of Mark Allen and Mike Pigg and loved the results. Other coaches calculate MAF differently, such as working down from lactate threshold. There is a time and a lace for fast paced training, but it might be a lot less than many of us have thought. For me, I know I need a lot more aerobic development, so I will stick to MAF, and let my pace gradually increase. Good luck with your training and racing!

  2. I am glad you recommended the Maffetone method for training. Earlier this year I was sacrificing quantity (number of miles run per week) in favor of “quality” (number of miles run at goal pace, goal pace being the pace I expected to run in my half marathon). The result was a lack of aerobic training. It’s hard to recover after a hard “goal paced run.” So, it’s a better investment of energy to slow down and do more aerobic “base building.” At least that’s the plan for the remainder of this year.

    • My experience is that the base determines everything. It should be developed as much as possible. The unexpected benefit is that race paces improve as well. It’s also important to regularly do a MAF test to check progress. It’s encouraging to see progress, and since the intensity is low, it’s a comfortable workout! Good luck with your training and racing.

      • That’s what is so counter intuitive about the Maffetone method and methods similar to Maffetone. It’s actually more fun, in my opinion, to slow down, relax and run in the aerobic zone. So, this is one of those rare situations where the method that is the most fun, the least stressful is actually the more effective method. Is it too good to be true? I’ll tell you in about 11 weeks.

      • Exactly! What I discovered is that each workout is very enjoyable, so I’m always motivated to train. That means more consistency and fewer rest days. Then comes the bonus, I get faster too. The only challenge is to have the discipline to stay under MAF.

      • “It’s also important to regularly do a MAF test to check progress.” Hmmm. What exactly is a MAF again? Which among Maffetone’s books do you think is the most essential for someone like me wanting to get the basic heart rate training principles?

        Now, maybe I did something similar to a MAF test today. I deliberately tried to elevate my heart rate while running, by running faster. You can check out my first blog post if you want to see the details.

        Catch you over at the McDougall forum.

      • A MAF test is where you control all the variables but one to check one’s progress. The most common one is to run a set number of miles on the track at the same MAF heart rate and measure pace. You could run (or bike) for a set length of time and check the distance. What matters is that each test is performed at the same MAF heart rate. I do two kinds: formal and informal. A formal test is where I go to the track and run 3×1 mile, and record my time for each mile separately, the average them. I’ll do one next week. An informal test is where I run the same route in exactly the same way, and note my time. I’m doing one today, since I’ve been out of town for awhile. As always, I keep my HR below 145. Maffetone recommends a formal MAF test once a month. If you plateau or regress for a couple of MAF tests, some lifestyle or training issue may be out of balance. As for books, either of his “Big Books” is a good place to start. Browse then on Amazon, and see which has the best range of topics for your interest. Since I like to race, I prefer the racing book. Don’t forget to check out his free articles on his website, you can get all you need to start there.

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