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Rest Day Strategies - Active Recovery vs Passive Recovery

When trying to get better results, we tend to prioritize diet and training. And, make no mistake, without those two things in place, it’s going to be a struggle to build muscle, gain strength, or lose fat.


But, there’s one other very important factor that affects your ability to get results from your time spent in the gym and in the kitchen -- recovery.


Simply put, the better your recovery is, the more frequently and harder you can train.


Despite this, many individuals struggle to prioritize recovery, especially in the wake of the “team no days off” mentality.


But, once you start taking recovery as seriously as you do your diet and training, you’ll quickly realize what game changer it really is.


Today, we discuss recovery and rest days in all its shapes and forms.


Let’s begin by discussing the different types of recovery strategies.


Active Recovery vs Passive Recovery


Recovery day strategies can be divided into active and passive activities


Active recovery modalities include low-intensity activities like gentle yoga, stretching, foam rolling, or even light biking, jogging, hiking, or walking.


Passive recovery modalities are more sedentary in nature and thus, do not involve movement.


Both recovery methods can be used effectively in any training program, which one to use depends on your personal preferences as well as how beat up your body is feeling.


Now let’s take a closer look at each type of rest day strategy.


3 Tips for Active Recovery


#1 Do No Harm


The biggest thing to keep in mind when performing active recovery on your rest days is to no over exert yourself. Doing so, will actually dig further into your recovery reserves, meaning it’s doing more harm than good.


Rest day strategies, regardless if they’re passive or active, are to enhance recovery. The last thing you want to do is go to intense on your “recovery” workouts, ultimately turning them into actual workouts.


Remember, active recovery modalities are low-level, low-intensity activities that are meant to activate the musculature, increase core temperature, and increase blood flow. You’re not trying to set PRs or jack up your heart rate.


#2 Keep Training “Light”


Building on the previous point, active recovery days should have lighter levels of activity, both in terms of volume and intensity, compared to training days.


Some ideal “light” training options include:

  • Walking
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Foam rolling


You can also include some light resistance training, which helps to reinforce good lifting technique and increase blood flow without inducing further muscle breakdown or central nervous system fatigue.


Remember though, the goal of active recovery is to enhance recovery, not detract from it. As such, the weights that you are lifting should not be challenging and you should not be approaching failure or high levels of muscular fatigue.


#3 Do Something Fun


If you’re like us, you love training, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing...even resistance training.


If you’re someone who has a hard time holding back, then make your off day activities (i.e. active recovery days) something that doesn’t involve the gym -- swimming, hiking, or walking around the block a few times.


In addition to increasing blood flow, reducing inflammation, and clearing waste products like lactic acid and H+ ions, active recovery days (as well as passive recovery days) help alleviate psychological stress, which can, at times, be just as fatiguing as the physical stress of hard training.


The goal of rest days is to feel better at the end of it...not exhausted by it.


Plus, getting outside and spending more time in nature has also been shown to improve mood, reduce stress, and increase feelings of well-being!


3 Tips for Passive Recovery


#1 Manage Stress


One of your primary concerns on rest days is alleviating the stress (physically, mentally, and emotionally) induced by intense workouts as well as daily life.


It’s essential that on your passive recovery days (as well as your active recovery days) to not spend too much time in a “sympathetic state”, which is the “fight or flight” state typically ignited when your mind and body are stressed.


Instead, focus on promoting the parasympathetic nervous system response (aka the “rest and digest” state).


There are a number of options available to help mitigate stress and promote feelings of calm. Some of our favorites are:

  • Reading
  • Meditating
  • Journaling
  • Praying
  • Listening to relaxing music
  • Taking a warm bath (with added mineral salts to enhance recovery and relaxation)


#2 Hydrate Properly


We’ve all heard how important it is to stay hydrated during training, but maintaining proper hydration during the hours outside the gym is just as important, especially for optimizing recovery.


Water is involved in just about every biological process, including (but not limited to):

  • Digestion
  • Oxygen delivery
  • Nutrient absorption
  • Hormone production
  • Body temperature regulation
  • Heart rate


It just so happens that each of these processes also plays a direct role in recovery (as well as performance too!).


A general rule of thumb of maintaining proper hydration is toc consume 0.04 liters of fluids per kilogram of body weight.


For an 80kg (176lbs) person that is 3.2 liters per day (80 x 0.04 = 3.2), which is 112 fluid ounces.


Keep in mind that your exact needs will depend on a variety of factors, including temperature of your surroundings, height, activity level, gender, and rate of perspiration.


Also, make sure to consume enough electrolytes in addition to water. Many times, individuals think that simply drinking plain water is enough to stay hydrated...it isn’t. When you sweat, you’re not only losing water but electrolytes too, which play key roles in muscle contraction and relaxation as well as cardiovascular function.


One easy way to stay hydrated during the day is to keep a water bottle with you at all times and take sips from it periodically. If you’re not a fan of plain water, you can add some fruit slices to your water to add some flavor without adding significant calories.


#3 Massage


As we mentioned above, relaxation plays a key role in mitigating stress and promoting the recovery process.


Few things are as relaxing as getting a massage. Additionally, manual therapy practices like massage also help increase blood flow and circulation which supplies tired muscles with nutrient rich blood while also removing toxin.


Massage can also help loosen up tight spots and adhesions in muscles, improving mobility and range of motion, allowing for better performance when you get back into the gym!


Bonus Tip: Napping


We’ve harped on the importance of sleep time and again on the blog, both in regards to fat loss and muscle growth. Well, it’s also vital to recovery as that is when the body does the vast majority of its repair and growth.


Napping can further support your sleep and recovery efforts, but understand that a nap or two a day is not a replacement for good sleep.


Think of napping like a pre workout, protein powder, appetite suppressant, or any other supplement -- it can enhance your results and make what you’re doing already more effective, but without the foundation in place (diet and training), the supplements won’t have as much benefit.


If you’re going to take a nap, the most optimal times are late morning or early afternoon. Taking a nap too late in the afternoon can adversely impact your ability to go to bed at your regular time


Also, naps are supposed to be short. 20-30 minutes is an ideal amount of time as it can help increase energy, recovery, and cognitive function. Napping for too long can lead you to feeling groggy and/or disrupting your sleep at night.


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