There are many reasons for muscle soreness and reduced performance in the realm of fitness:
Being new to exercise, muscle lengthening movements, performing high intensity exercises with very little rest in between, etc. These conditions happen to all of us at one point or another, which is why proper recovery is essential for getting us back in the game stronger and healthier than before.
To most passive rest (sitting, reclining, sleeping) is naturally the best answer. The logic is simple; sit back, relax, and let the body repair itself. Setting the body on auto-pilot can be nice after a grueling workout, but there may be better and more proactive means of healing the body– which brings us to active recovery. Active recovery is a new topic being explored in the industry, and while there’s still more to learn about it, active recovery is already challenging the idea of what is best for the body during time off from the gym.
To get a better picture of the methods of active recovery it’s important to break down the different types of recovery:
- Immediate recovery, happens between the shortest durations of time of exertion. For example rests between repetitions of shoulder presses
- Short term recovery, the span of time that occurs between sets of exercises to reduce lactate build-up like sprint intervals and weightlifting.
- Training recovery, the span of time between workouts or competitions
Using immediate and short term recovery is key for getting through any workout, but the long term focus should be on training recovery. Utilizing the time between workouts (training recovery) with active recovery will offer the most room for improvement in performance, giving the body time to return to homeostasis through sleep, nutrition, and hormonal changes (all of which happen outside of the exercise session).
It’s true that you could just rest until your next workout, taking a more active approach to your rest days may be far more beneficial. Soreness in your muscles requires circulation to move through. If you don’t move your muscles and get your blood moving, science shows us soreness will linger longer than necessary. There are numerous activities that can help, but doing something as simple as cleaning your house or walking is a step in the right direction.
The Case For A More Hands-On Recovery
While complete rest has its merit, Active rest is a proactive way of healing the body with benefits such as
- removing lactic acid build-up
- relieving the body of toxins
- improving blood flow
- aleviating muscle soreness
- improving performance
The 3 Techniques For Proactive Recovery
An issue that often comes up is how vague the methods and results of active recovery are. Fortunately there are three solid ways that have been tried and tested that can help you after the most strenuous workouts
Contrast Water Therapy
Contrast water therapy or contrast bath therapy is a technique in which all body parts are submerged in first hot water, then cold water and the procedure of alternating between the two in intervals several times. This is a treatment that many physical therapists use to treat muscle spasms, improve strength, flexibility, and range of motion.
A meta-analysis comparing the benefits of contrast water therapy on the body vs complete rest after exercise. The trials suggest that muscle soreness, muscle damage, strength, and power all recover quicker with the use of water over no intervention/rest.
Pooled data also showed that contrast water therapy reduced muscle therapy loss. The alternating warm immersion followed by cold immersion increases limb blood flow through vasodilation vasoconstriction of peripheral blood vessels. This in theory increases lactate clearance, decrease inflammation, reduce muscle cell damage, and promote blood flow.
A Light Workout
It sounds backwards I know, but one of the best ways to get over the muscle soreness of a previous workout is to do a light one. More specifically a light workout using the same muscles that were used in a prior intense workout session is said to relieve muscle soreness.
Active Recovery Options
Swimming: swimming has taken its place as one of the best recovery techniques around. A study from the University of Western Australian analyzing triathletes recorded considerably better running times after recovery swimming. The study also found the use of swimming as a recovery option caused lower levels of c-reactive protein, a factor widely involved in muscle inflammation (3).
Cycling: light cycling is an excellent choice for getting the blood circulating and muscles moving without being too taxing on sore body parts. A study found cycling on a bike ergometer was effective at reducing muscle fatigue in the lower body than passive recovery (regardless of the type of athlete) (2).
Yoga: a gentler, restorative yoga that focuses on slower movements works well for relieving muscle soreness. Yin yoga’s aim for example is to hold poses that are usually on the floor that target connective tissue and ligaments. Its passive nature and dedication to relaxed stretching positions is great help when honing in on sore muscle groups. Try and steer clear of strength-focused yoga like Vinyasa or power, hot, and level 3+ yoga; all of which can be considered workouts themselves.
A massage is a very old school, straight forward way of deal with muscle soreness, but positive results have come from it consistently. A 20-30 minute massage immediately after or 2 hours after exercise has been shown to effectively reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) for 24 hours after the workout (1).
Some studies report that massages decrease DOMS for 72 hours after exercise and have a significant impact even 96 hours after exercise. In marathoner and other elite athletes massages generated a significant improvement in lowering perceived pain and a reduction in cortisol levels.
Massage was found to be the most effective method for recovering from DOMS and fatigue. As a whole massage and cold exposure were the most powerful techniques for reducing inflammation (1)
Post Exercise Programming
So with all of the previous info in mind, here are two examples you can combine to create a complete active recovery workout:
Stationary bike + contrast water therapy + massage
Swimming + contrast water therapy + massage
Contrast water therapy and massages can be used after a light workout to accelerate the healing process. Most people don’t have access to facilities with multiple tubs that allow you to switch between hot and cold water quickly, which is why I suggest using a shower. Though the body isn’t completely submerged in water, the ability to switch temperatures quickly from hot to cold will still create vasodilation and produce the same results.
Instead of alternating between tubs of hot and cold water, simply switch the shower handle from hot water (around 100-110 degrees) for 3 to 4 minutes to cold water (49-59 degrees) for 1 minute.
While most swimmers measure intervals in meters, because the light nature of the workout, you can measure in terms of perceived exertion and minutes to keep the challenge levels minimal. If you’re not a pro at swimming, that’s ok, the focus of the workout is to use the muscle groups that were trained in your previous workout. So if you had a heavy leg day, concentrate on pushing your lower body during your swim.