Why Active Recovery Should be Part of Your Training Plan
If you’re like most runners, the first thing you typically do when setting a goal or signing up for a race is to get a training plan – online, via an app, or with a running coach or group.
What constitutes recovery in most training plans is a day of rest every week and cut back weeks.
But is this really enough?
To answer that question, we first need to look at what happens to the body during training and why recovery matters.
After a run, your body enters a period of repair. During the repair process, a natural inflammatory response may present as soreness, stiffness, and possibly swelling.
It’s called acute inflammation because it should be short-lived; as long as you have adequate recovery and refuel properly, your body will return to normal, and your muscles become even stronger.
Problems can arise from training with inadequate recovery resulting in chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is definitely not something we want from our workouts. It can increase the risk of injury and speed up your body’s aging process, and it is linked to arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Endurance runners are particularly susceptible to chronic inflammation because of the link between eccentric muscle contractions (the kind that happens with running) and heightened inflammatory response.
Avoiding over-training and adequate recovery will help to decrease the chances of developing chronic inflammation.
Cortisol is referred to as “the stress hormone” and is released by the adrenal gland in response to stress.
Overtraining or too much intense exercise without adequate recovery can lead to elevated cortisol levels in the bloodstream. Signs and symptoms of chronically high cortisol include weight gain, digestive issues, joint pain, and difficulty sleeping.
Elevated cortisol also impairs immune function and negatively affects performance.
Elevated cortisol is also associated with muscle tension, and muscle tension, in turn, is linked to higher rates of injury.
In addition to avoiding overtraining and adequate nutrition, rest and recovery are essential for maintaining healthy cortisol levels.
Excess muscle tension is another negative consequence of training without adequate recovery.
Any repetitive activity results in muscle memory. Your brain notices when you are using specific muscles over and over and will, over time, maintain a heightened level of tension in the muscles so that it becomes involuntarily. The muscles stay activated even when you no longer use them during the activity. This tension leads to less than optimal posture and movement changes.
The gradual increase in the resting level of muscle tension creates imbalances in the body and impacts muscle and joint function. This impaired function eventually leads to wear, tear, and injury.
Adequate recovery should ideally help to decrease cortisol AND muscle tension to avoid this gradual build-up that, over time, restricts mobility and range of motion.
This recovery is essential in mid-life when we have been reinforcing these patterns of movement that may not serve us well for many years. Muscle memory is learned throughout our lives, but the good news is that faulty movement habits can be unlearned.
“Fight or Flight” versus “Rest and Digest”
The autonomic nervous system consists of two limbs – the sympathetic, responsible for the body’s “fight or flight” response, and the parasympathetic, which controls the “rest and digest” response.
During exercise, the sympathetic limb is naturally activated. Still, too much time spent in this state from overtraining, inadequate recovery, and day-to-day stress can be detrimental to runners.
When the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is activated, it slows our heart and breathing rates, lowers blood pressure, and promotes digestion. Our body enters a state of relaxation, and relaxation is linked to better recovery.
Active Versus Passive Recovery
So, now that we’ve looked at all the ways that training without adequate recovery can negatively impact health and performance, we return to the question of whether or not a weekly day of rest or cut back weeks constitute sufficient recovery.
When we see what happens to the body when the scales tip in favor of training and not enough recovery, it is hopefully easier to understand why simply taking a day off once a week may not be enough.
Ideally, a solid active recovery plan would help to:
Lower cortisol levels
Reduce the resting level of tension in your muscles
Re-pattern muscle memory and restore healthy postural and movement habits; and…
Activate the parasympathetic “rest, digest and heal” response
Active recovery checks all or many boxes in terms of reducing any adverse effects of running on your body.
It may seem like there are a lot of boxes to check, but if you look at it from this perspective – making time for adequate rest and recovery can enhance performance and make you a more resilient runner – it can be highly motivating.
The good news is that there is a lot we can do to aid our recovery and ensure that we reach our goals and keep running healthily for years to come.
Many practices can help reduce inflammation, lower cortisol, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and help with muscle tension – yoga, meditation, and intentional breathing, to name a few.
Neuromuscular education is a uniquely effective recovery approach because it addresses muscle tension at the source – your brain and nervous system- in addition to all of the above benefits. The slow, gentle, mindful releases involved also help to rewire the brain-muscle connection, which improves your posture and movement efficiency.
Fitting adequate recovery into your training plan doesn’t have to be complicated or take a lot of time. It’s about working smarter, not harder, to optimize the conditions that will ultimately make you a more resilient runner and get you to your goals.