What Does Active Recovery Mean for Sports-Related Pain

by Eric Bostrom July 07, 2020 5 min read

What Does Active Recovery Mean for Sports-Related Pain

As athletes, we take pride in leaving everything on the table after a competition – or even after an intense workout or practice session. 

Pushing ourselves is the key to becoming better, staying sharp, and keeping on top of our game. But an often-overlooked facet of working out is what we do afterward to enable our body to recover from all that exertion. 

Conventional wisdom used to say take a day or two off to relax and do nothing. This is called passive recovery.

However, as more research is done on the subject, we’re learning that the body actually responds better to active recovery–working out to recover from, well,working out

If this sounds like crazy talk, don’t worry. As counterintuitive as this may sound, active recovery–that is, a low-intensity workout–promotes many of the physiological responses needed to get your muscles and joints in tip-top shape quicker.We can think about this as a “work out and then work in” process to achieve an optimal increase in strength and regeneration of soft tissue.

The beauty of active recovery is that it doesn’t just apply to athletes–it applies to you, too!

We can all benefit from a little self-care, especially as millions of people suffer from neck and back pain as a result ofrepetitive stressors such as poor posture, sitting at a computer all day, and other poor life choices that, unfortunately, are a staple of modern life. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

Below we’re going to delve a little deeper into active recovery by explaining what it is, why it’s beneficial, and how it can help you if you’re feeling pain (especially in the neck or back).

However, before we go any further, there’s something important to stress: You know your body best. There’s a difference between soreness, pain, and injury. If you don’t feel well, seek medical attention. 

What Is Active Recovery?

As we’ve already stated earlier, active recovery is as simple as performing a low-intensity exercise after a high-intensity event or workout. 

Activities like walking, swimming, cycling, or yoga are just a few examples, but your personal fitness levels will partially determine what you should do. 

However, different people train and perform differently, so we also have to plan for active recovery differently: either directly after your high-intensity workout or event, integrated as part of your workout, or lastly, in the days after your extreme physical exertion–because sometimes you’re simply exhausted and burned out and you need a break. We’re human. It happens. (If you’re injured, then, by all means, stop and take a break)

Here’s why active recovery is important. As you work out and exert yourself,you are literally breaking down your muscles so that, when they recover, they come back stronger.

Strength training is the most visual example of this, but it applies to many other forms of exercise. This process also produces toxins. Typically if your heart rate is below 80% of its Max Heart Rate (MHR), you are able to move these toxins through your bloodstream efficiently. 

However, a hard workout implies that you’re working above the 80% MHR threshold, putting your body in an anaerobic state. When you’re in this state you’re pushing yourself hard and you produce more lactic acid–this is the “burn” you feel when you’re close to exhaustion. 

Your heart is working hard enough trying to get oxygen and blood where it needs to go; meaning lactic acid isn’t passed through the bloodstream as efficiently. 

Focus on waste removal and replenishment for muscle and soft tissue.With active recovery, you’re keeping the heart pumping at aslower pace–but still higher than its resting rate–to maintain blood flow, which is what’s important in making sure your muscles get the nutrients and oxygen it needs while getting rid of the waste it doesn’t.

This leads to muscles and joints feeling better in less time, and that’s the goal here, right?     

What Does Active Recovery Mean for Sports-Related Pain

Types of Active Recovery

Now that you know what active recovery is, let’s talk about the different ways of doing it. 

For some of us, continuing our workout after leaving it all on the table is the last thing we want to do, but the more you incorporate active recovery into your overall routine, the easier it’ll get.

Generally speaking, there are three different types of active recovery. 

As part of your cooldown

Congratulations. You just “finished” a strenuous exercise. We use the quotes because you’re not really done yet. Instead of sitting or lying down, slow down your heart rate gradually (while still keeping it above your resting heart rate) with a low-intensity activity.

Thankfully there are so many options: walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, yoga (but nothing too vigorous), even bodyweight exercises. 

Pick one or two you enjoy because this cooldown phase could last anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. 

During interval training

If your preferred method of exercise is circuit training or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), active recovery can still be incorporated. Instead of simply resting between sets, perform a low-intensity exercise in-between at no more than 50% of your max effort.

Not sure what to do? Try an easy jog, bodyweight lunges, or take a pedal on a stationary bike. 

The point, in case you haven’t guessed by now, is to keep the heart pumping and the blood moving,to push away toxins and introduce oxygen, thus stimulating recovery in the form of muscle regeneration.

In fact, studies have shown athletes who have pushed themselves to the point of exhaustion recover faster using this method than from taking a total break.

The day after

Sometimes after you’ve given everything you have, you just need a break. But unless you’re injured or otherwise unable to move, we can start thinking about our recovery as a holistic approach to the workout process. 

We put a lot of thought into our exercise, so let’s also plan our active recovery day(s).

The day after a strenuous exercise, carve out a little time in the day to perform one or more of the low-intensity activities mentioned above–you’ll probably come to find that going on an easy walk or pedal, followed by a thorough stretch and massage/foam roll will not only feel good but will also improve your state of mind, too.

Try Some Natural Self Massaging

Another option, especially if you’ve thoroughly exhausted your muscles or are experiencing some inflammation, is a self-myofascial release (SMR), also known as massage. 

Simple, inexpensive items like a foam roller or the Backmate are excellent tools to massage problem areas and release toxins. 

Massage also increases circulation which revitalizes soft tissue and distracts the nervous system, which reduces pain and spasms by calming the overactive protective mechanisms in the brain. Not to mention it just feels great! 

As an additional means of working out the neck and back (and most other sore spots on the body) to help relieve pain, Backmate is an excellent option. This simple device is designed totarget and massage muscles and instantly alleviates pain and discomfort all from the comfort of your home or office in a few minutes a day. 

With it, you can target your problem area–even hard-to-reach ones–apply the right amount of pressure, and roll the soreness away. 

self massage for active recovery backmate blog

Concluding Thoughts

Don’t skimp out on your recovery. It can be easy to push it aside, but it is just as important as your workout itself.

As we’ve already shown, the physical benefits are numerous, but we hardly mentioned the emotional and mental benefits getting out for a light activity can have (hint: it’s very beneficial). 

P.S. - Focus on mindfulness. You may have found this article because you’re in pain. Don’t get hung up on the doom and gloom of your search, appreciate your body for all the great times you’ve had and the great times to come. Your wellness hinges on the mighty healing power of your body, feed it.  Positive thoughts are regenerative. Remember, your body is the ultimate healing mechanism, what we do either assists or disables its divine powers.
Eric Bostrom
Eric Bostrom