Rest is an essential part of training, regardless of what you’re training towards.
The stress and load of your workout must be tempered with downtime, where your body hits the ‘rest and recover’ switch, and actively promotes muscle recovery.
Not really. It turns out a little movement and light exercise is good for muscles during recovery. On the other hand, refusing to allow your muscles to recover by overtraining can actually set you back in your training program, and even do serious harm to your body.
You just finished a tough workout. You really went all out and now it’s time to hit the couch, watch Netflix and chill all weekend, right?
It’s why most elite athletes actually spend the majority of their days chilling out.
That’s right, they spend more time on the couch than they typically do training.
This is because:
i) they’ve got all the time in the world to dedicate to their physical performance (no pesky day job to distract them),
ii) they understand how essential good rest is.
In this article, I’ll explain the tools and tricks pro athletes use to achieve deep, meaningful rest and recovery periods, and how you can incorporate these techniques for how to rest like an elite athlete. We’ll cover:
- Active vs Passive Recovery
- Examples of Active Recovery Exercises
- 7 Recovery Tools and Tips for Runners
- How To Optimize Your Sleep As a Runner
Let’s jump in!
How To Use Active Recovery
There are two types of recovery: active and passive.
Passive recovery is the situation I described above, basically lying down and doing nothing.
There is a clear consensus among training experts that active recovery is more beneficial than passive. So, while passive recovery is needed, today we’re gonna cover active recovery.
Active recovery means what it sounds like; letting your muscles rest a bit while maintaining movement.
But, let’s break that down a little more. There are three different types of active recovery:
Type #1: Between Sets
Staying active and mobile during the in-between periods of an intense workout. Hence, “between sets.”
Type #2: Cool Down
A cool-down simply means remaining active after a workout. Often, this refers to a “cool down run,” which means a post-workout jog or even brisk walk.
Cooling down after a run or workout allows gradual recovery of your heart rate and blood pressure to pre-workout levels. This is important especially for endurance athletes, including marathon runners because it helps regulate blood flow, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Type #3: Rest Days
A rest day might seem like the perfect time for passive recovery, but this is when staying mobile is most important.
“When an athlete plans a productive rest day, active recovery is the name of the game,” said Dani Singer, certified personal trainer and director of FIT2GO Personal Training.
“A day that is not spent on training is a day full of opportunity for mobility work. Use this time to take care of any muscle tension or joint stiffness you might be carrying around. For example, if you’re a distance runner then you’ll likely find all sorts of knots in your hip flexors, hamstrings, and low back. Use a drill like the “Squat to Pike” to identify and address any issues in these areas,” said Singer.
When we workout intensely, tiny tears form in the muscles. Eventually, our muscles repair themselves and it’s during this repair process that they grow larger and stronger (it’s also why we feel sore in the hours and days after a workout.)
Staying active on rest days increases blood flow to those muscles, helping them to repair themselves faster and make us feel less sooner.
Examples Of Active Recovery Rest Day Exercises
These light exercises will help you stay mobile and recover faster, so that your body is ready for the next intense workout.
- Walking, or power walking
- Gentle jogging
- Pilates or yoga
- Using a foam roller
- Gentle gym sessions (less than 50% your normal weight).
7 Rapid Recovery Tools and Tips For Runners
Standard foam rollers can help massage the soft tissue, ligaments, tendon that surround a heavily used muscle. It can increase blood flood and promote recovery in those areas.
When using a foam roller, stop whenever you hit a tender spot, inhale, and as you exhale roll your way down. Treat your body in sections and focus on the sorest muscles.
2. Massage guns
Alternatively, electronic massage guns can achieve the same tension release and increase in blood flow as foam rollers do, however, they are more suitable for passive recovery because they require little effort.
3. Recovery Boots
Recovery boots are similar to the blood pressure monitors that fit over your upper arm. They look like oversized boots that you fit onto your legs up to your hips.
The boots inflate pneumatically, compressing around the legs like a blood pressure monitor would around your upper arm. Recovery boots increase blood flow to your muscles after a tough run or workout, and promote faster muscle recovery.
4. Resistance Bands
Light workouts with resistance bands can keep muscles active on rest days. There are many exercises good for stretching out muscle groups that can take a beating during long distance running.
5. Use a Wall!
If you don’t have any of the equipment I listed above, don’t fret! Simply find a wall and lay down perpendicular to it, bring your legs up into the air with your heels gently resting against the wall.
Hold this position for 6-8 minutes or until your feet start to tingle. This technique helps more oxygenated blood flow into your sore legs.
6. Recovery Runs
It’s key to reduce your effort and keep these recovery runs gentle, or you will risk overtraining and injury.
7. Maintaining Hydration
Maintaining hydration is vital for athletes during workouts, but also on rest days. Drinking water with electrolytes is a great way to stay hydrated longer than you would if you were drinking just water. Here’s a recipe to follow for a DIY electrolyte water!
Sleep Tips For Athletes
We’ve all heard the old wisdom about getting 8 hours every night, but did you know that athletes can aim for 10 hours of sleep? In this section, we’ll discuss best sleep practices for athletes.
“Getting above average sleep warrants above average performance,” said certified personal trainer and founder of The Fitness Tribe Brandon Nicholas.
- Athletes – even us regular humans, after a hard workout – should get 10 hours of sleep each night because athletes expend energy and put strain on their muscles at a higher rate than non-athletes, therefore athletes should sleep for longer periods of time comparatively, in order to fully repair and recover.
- Power naps can be an athlete’s best friend, but they have to be done right. A good power nap is a short rest during the day.
Power naps for athletes is only a 10-30 minute shut-eye at any point during the day. This brings out a two-three hour boost in energy and performance, while long naps that usually last for up to two hours can cause grogginess and is detrimental for your athletic performance later on,” said Nicholas.
- Additionally, naps should be scheduled so that they don’t interrupt your night’s sleep, the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School recommends short naps before 5 p.m. to prevent a restless night.
I personally enjoy a pre-workout power nap a couple days each week. I usually set a timer on my phone for 25 minutes after I lay down. When I wake up, I don’t feel any sense of grogginess, rather recharged and ready to shift into a workout mentality.
- A consistent sleep schedule is key for athletes who require high amounts of energy to get them through tomorrow’s workout. Going to bed and waking up at a regular time will contribute to aligning your body clock. A regular sleep routine can speed up muscle recovery and boost the body’s ability to recharge.
- Keeping distractions like phones, computers and TVs out of your bedroom can promote an uninterrupted sleep, while solidifying your bedroom as a place to sleep, not a second living room or office.
I am guilty of this. When I crawl into bed it’s not sleep that’s on my mind, more often than not it’s, “what should I watch?” The truth is our minds will start to associate a place (the bedroom) with sleep, if we consistently train it to do so by using our bedroom for the sole purpose of sleeping.
Conversely, if I continue to watch TV in my bed before I attempt to fall asleep, it will be harder for me to fall asleep quickly than if I didn’t treat my bedroom like a movie theater.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed. These chemicals, along with nicotine, have been shown to either prevent or interrupt sleep, according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Why Rest Is Important
If you aren’t completely convinced that rest is an integral aspect of a top athlete’s performance, here’s some insight from professional Triathlete and Rower Nick Karwoski.
When training for a particular race, event or goal, rest becomes as important, if not more important, than the training itself. The only way for your body to perform at its best is to make sure that you are giving everything it needs to recover. This means more than just rolling out or stretching; it means hydrating, fueling, sleeping and timing your days off that are optimal in your training. The harder you push your body and ask of it, the more it may need to recover in order to repeat that training session.”
Rest and recovery are essential to any athlete’s training program; whether they are a pro, or training for their first half marathon.
Use these tips and try to dedicate the same amount of time, effort and concentration toward your rest as you would your workout.
Eating proper foods, maintaining hydration, stretching, and sleeping well are all pieces of the “feel-good-puzzle.” When they all fit together you perform your best!