You don’t dare skip a rest day, even though you are itching to get out that door.
Your body is crying out for a run, you want to beat your last time, and feel that burn. But you restrain yourself. You know if you run now you are likely to suffer an injury, or worse, push your body over the edge and slowly watch it under perform month after month. But still the itch is there, the call to exercise, and it is hard to sit still.
But what if you were told there was an alternative to rest days? What if we told you exercising was possible? And what if we told you that it may be better for you than a traditional rest day? And it may actually increase your fitness, performance and strength.
Engaging in light exercise during the days following a strenuous workout is termed Active Recovery. It’s not a new idea, you’ve probably done it before and experienced the benefits, but do you really understand why it’s so great for you?
Active Recovery and Healing
While it initially seems to go against logic, muscles recuperate and heal faster during Active Recovery than they do propped up on the couch enjoying a one-day cricket match.
To understand this, we need to understand what happens to our body when we train.
Strenous exercise causes your muscles to release glycogen, which fuels your activity. During the exercise process your muscles suffer microtrauma (mini tears) and produces lactate.
It’s long been acknowledged you need to allow time between exercise for this microtrauma to heal and for your body to process this lactate. The healing of these tears builds the muscle and increases your fitness, but if you don’t allow them to heal before pushing yourself again you are setting yourself up for injury. This is why rest has always been touted as crucial to performance.
Light exercise, in contrast to passive rest, increases circulation to your muscles without overburdening them. This increased circulation helps to relieve pain and fatigue, and aid healing and recovery.
Active Recovery and the Baddy Lactate
Ok, we’ve already established that your body produces lactate during strenuous exercise and that it’s essential to allow your body time to process this lactate. Light exercise has been proven to increase the speed at which your body processes blood lactate – allowing you to get back on the road sooner.
While it’s been known for a while that Active Recovery is one of the most effective ways to lower blood lactate levels it’s not really been understood how this works. Until recently.
Contrary to long-held beliefs, new research is proving that rather than being an unnecessary chemical byproduct of exercise, lactate is actually the key to your fitness.
One, it stimulates mitochondrial biogenesis. Which is a fancy way of saying lactate stimulates production of mitochondria in your muscles cells. The greater the concentration of these little powerhouses, the greater your endurance performance will be.
Which really makes lactate a bit of a hero. That said, too much blood lactate is not a great thing.
But here’s the cruncher. Lactate is also used by mitochondria (your cells powerhouses) as fuel for muscle contractions, which may explain why light exercise decreases the amount of lactate in your system. The jury is still out on why light exercise actually helps burn up the excess blood lactate floating around in your system, but the fact that it does is still great news.
Active Recovery as a Key to Improved Performance
This really comes done to the type of exercise you chose to engage in.
While active recovery can be as simple as a light jog or gentle swim it is more effective to spend this time in some form of cross-training activity that will increase your performance at a later date.
More and more top gyms are incorporating pilates into their recovery routines, for good reason. Aside from being the perfect low-impact exercise for active recovery, it has the added value of giving your muscles a good stretch, while strengthening your core and increasing your flexibility and range of motion.
For runners it is great for targeting and strengthening weak areas, i.e. your abductors and quads. As experts in caring for endurance athletes, there is a reason why we have incorporated pilates into our clinic and why we actively promote recovery classes for runners.