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Training Hard, and "Active Recovery"

I had a great question last week on an Instagram Q&A regarding rest days, how many one should take, and thoughts on Active Recovery. It's a great question, because for a lot of people I think the emphasis on recovery modalities in the current health and fitness space is growing rapidly. Everyone is doing saunas, taking ice baths, and making sure they have great Whoop Scores. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but we need to be aware of the training process and understand recovery.

Training is all about adaptations. You introduce your body to a stressor, it has a response, and then it adapts to the stressor for future resilience against it. Here's the big kicker which I think people forget about: it's all stressors! Your lifting session is a stress. Your afternoon jog is a stress. Your ice bath, your sauna, your argument with your spouse, and your over-indulgence in adult beverages on the weekends are all stressors. The thing we need to figure out, then, is how to create scenarios for adaptation.

The first thing I always point out when people ask me about recovery or load management, is asking the question, "Are you really training hard?" Most people, though not all, are pretty detached from the reality of how hard their training sessions are. They may have some interset intensity, or do a lot of volume, but their workouts as a whole are not very intense or hard as they like to believe. Many are sloppy about rest times, execution, or take little regard to intentionality. When we look at making progress, we need to have progressing intensities of stimulation via the stressor and appropriately planned and designated rest and recovery. This means we actually have to train hard, and hard being training with the right intent and attention to detail.

Hiking is a personal favorite activity on rest days, though it rarely gets my heart rate up to a point of achieving a notable training stimulus.

The next thing I always point out when people ask about recovery from their training, is asking what they do on their rest days. I was in the CrossFit world when I first got into training, and have recently found myself back around the environment. I really enjoy the CrossFit world because the people are very welcoming, very process oriented, and train their tail ends off. But there's one thing they still promote which I find kind of funny: active rest days. I think the intention is good, but the execution so many come to have is one of showing up at the gym and doing a 5k row or some long aerobic workout. There's nothing wrong with an easy day, but we need to understand this isn't recovery, it's just an exposure to a different type of stressor. And stressors require adaptation to them.

So when we look at training, and recovering from our training, we need to be able to ask two questions:

  1. Are you training hard enough to warrant major rest days? Meaning, do you train with the right intent and focus to require as much of a complete alleviation of stressors as you can?

  2. Are you actually resting or recovering from your training on your rest days? Diving deeper, are you actually giving the body the time it needs to create an adaptation? Or are you simply masking the need for recovery by layering a different stimulus on top of it?

We need to train hard, but hard is a very individual thing to both the individual and the goal they seek to accomplish. I personally am training for my first ever (intentional) Half-Marathon, and the "training hard" I am experiencing is actually focusing on and limiting intensity/slowing down when I run so I can keep the same pace for 13 miles. The goal and the focus on executing the training is what makes the training hard. Same thing goes for someone trying to do some body re-composition (lose body fat, put on muscle), where they put effort into each weight room repetition and are being meticulous about their dietary needs. The "harder" the training, the more we need to be more specific about our recovery.

Recovery between sets and recovery between sessions is also different. Recovery between sets allows for energy systems to "recharge", while recovery between sessions allows for lasting adaptations to be made.

Which brings us to the answer of the last question, because making sure we're actually giving the body time to adapt and recover is key. Especially when we look at the "active recovery crowd", the activity of the recovery day shouldn't be layering on top of other adaptations being pursued in the background of the main adaptations. For example, I do absolutely nothing on my rest day. I have one day each week where I don't do anything. I lay on the couch, go out with friends, or do some stuff around the house. I may go on a really easy hike, but something which is going to keep my heart rate under a Zone 2 level of output. Why? Because these things do not add enough of a stressor to interfere with the ability to adapt to the running volume I am doing (which puts me usually in the Zone 2-3 range of Heart Rate). If you're doing CrossFit, and your training consistently has some form of anaerobic or aerobic component (newsflash, this is every CrossFit workout), your rest day should probably skip the gym altogether. Because you're likely to fall into the trap of layering on additional stressors. If you are looking to recover, you need to really consider the intensity of the effort you put out on rest days and ensure it is not adding more stressors.

In sum, we need to consider adaptations when we talk about training and recovery. Training is a stressor, and recovery should allow us time to go through adaptation responses to the stressor. Our active recovery days may not be as restful and recovering as we often think, and in order to get the most out of them, we should make sure they aren't creating more stressors to adapt to on top of it all.

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