In the world of fitness and physical performance, there has long been an unspoken belief that pushing oneself to the limits is the only way to achieve true strength and progress. Sweating it out at the gym, enduring grueling workouts, and training until exhaustion has been glorified as the epitome of success. Research shows there’s a more balanced approach to improved fitness: Active Recovery.
Burnout is real
Have you ever pushed yourself to the point of exhaustion and experienced burnout?
Burnout colloquially refers to muscle fatigue, the inability of muscles to produce force. Muscle fatigue is often described in terms that refer to a buildup of lactic acid, though this is only a piece of a much larger story involving multiple systems of the body.
The emotional and cognitive state caused by excessive stress is also known as burnout. While the burnout state of complete and utter depletion is not a technical diagnosis, burnout manifests in real medical symptoms such as chronic fatigue, insomnia, brain fog, lack of motivation, and emotional instability. It has also been listed as a syndrome in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Disease Classification since 2019.
Burnout not only diminishes quality of life but also sets the stage for serious consequences on overall health. Burnout correlates with increased vulnerability to infectious disease and, if sustained over a prolonged period of time, to chronic conditions including but not limited to heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes (Garg, 2020).
Statistics indicate that it also takes a mental and emotional toll, increasing your risk of depression and addiction (Armon, 2014).
Avoid the Crash and Burn
There is one surefire method to avoid facing burnout – sufficient rest.
Though counterintuitive, layering rest into your routine is a necessary component of building enduring strength and resilience. Research has long shown that a good night’s sleep and taking days off from strenuous activities are critical components of a healthy recovery process (Dupuy, 2018).
We’ve all heard the cautionary tale: intense workouts create micro-tears in the muscles, which, when given time to heal, leads to muscle growth and increased strength. Without adequate recovery, however, these micro-tears can accumulate, resulting in overuse injuries and decreased performance.
Depending on how hard you push yourself at the gym, some workouts require as many as three days of rest before working out again. To ignore this practical recommendation is to risk structural damage to the tissue – and tissue healing estimates increase when you’re waking up exhausted from living in a state of burnout.
While burnout is measured in lactic acid and microtears in the lab, in life the story plays into other aspects of your physiology. To get a fuller picture of muscle fatigue and weakness, it’s wise to look towards the Central Nervous System (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord, and the Peripheral Nervous Systems (PNS), the remainder of your nerves.
“There is one surefire method to avoid facing burnout – sufficient rest.”
In addition to lactic acid buildup, muscle fatigue results from sources stemming in the brain (CNS). Studies show that during periods of fatigue, motoneurons exhibit diminished action potential frequency and synchronization. There is also reduced output from the motor cortex region. Muscle weakness, on the other hand, originates in the PNS when there is a shift in the mechanism underlying the transmission of action potentials from nerve to muscle. (Tornero-Aguilero et al, 2022).
On a small scale, these changes are part of life. It’s not uncommon to deplete your energy sources. However, when this happens too frequently or paired with a burnout state, these disturbances can become a chronic condition.
If you live with burnout or want to prevent burnout before it begins, research shows that Active Recovery could be the missing piece in your health and fitness routine.
What is Active Recovery?
Active Recovery is a quick and effective method to minimize fatigue and soreness, improve mindset, and support improved physical and cognitive performance. Rather than pushing the body to its breaking point, Active Recovery focuses on rejuvenation and nourishing the body and mind.
Active Recovery includes a wide range of low-impact activities like walking, self-massage, breathwork and stretching.
This style of gentle, restorative movement further builds and enhances your recovery and resilience, whether incorporated as your main source of exercise or to complement the more intense exercise days as part of your general wellness plan.
To fully replenish after a strenuous workout, research shows skipping the traditional rest day on the couch and opting instead for AR is a more effective approach, one that is supportive of a healthy nervous system.
Unlike passive recovery, active recovery improves blood and lymphatic flow, reduces lactic acid and metabolite buildup in the muscles, lowers cortisol, and supports a healthier state of mind.
Active Recovery Fitness Options
Finding the right modality that complements your fitness routine and promotes efficient recovery is key to maximizing your personal overall performance.
Here are some different types of active recovery activities worth considering incorporating into your weekly regimen:
Engaging in low-impact cardiovascular exercises, such as swimming or cycling, stimulates blood flow, alleviates soreness, and helps flush out metabolic waste. These exercises are gentle on the joints while still providing a great workout.
Stretching, Yoga, and Pilates
Incorporating stretching sessions into your routine can improve flexibility, enhance range of motion, and promote relaxation. These activities not only aid in muscle recovery but also help reduce stress and increase mindfulness.
Soft tissue self-massage/rolling
Using self-myofascial release tools such as massage balls or a foam roller can target specific muscle groups and alleviate tension or knots. This technique promotes blood circulation, increases fascial tissue mobility, and enhances muscle recovery. We recommend that these tools be on the softer side to avoid muscle bracing (the opposite of what you’re going for here!)
Mobility exercises with light bands or weights that target joint range of motion can enhance stability and prevent injury. Incorporate exercises to mobilize specific joints or muscle groups that may need extra attention, such as hips, shoulders or ankles.
Instead of completely taking a day off from physical activity, consider engaging in light activities like walking or a gentle hike. These activities keep your body moving and your blood flowing while allowing your muscles to recover and recharge for more intense workouts.
Breath relaxation techniques
Explore various breathing techniques to reduce stress and promote mental well-being and focus. These techniques can aid in overall recovery and help you maintain a positive mindset.
By breaking away from social stigma that valorizes pushing yourself to the limit as the only way, active recovery techniques support building balance in your fitness routine and a reservoir of strength within.
Designing Your Active Recovery Routine
Here are some valuable tips to help you design an effective active recovery plan:
Assess your needs
A self-assessment will help you more fully understand your body’s specific requirements. To tailor your personalized active recovery plan, begin with a check-in to consider any existing injuries or limitations. Pay attention to sensations and discomfort within, notice what needs to be immediately addressed, and act accordingly.
Focus on mobility and flexibility
Dedicate time to stretching exercises, mobility drills, and soft tissue self-massage to improve your range of motion and release restrictions in your muscles. Increased mobility and flexibility can enhance your performance and reduce the risk of injuries.
Keep listening to your body
Pay attention to any signals your body may be sending during movement. If you feel fatigued or experience pain, adjust your active recovery plan accordingly. This ensures that you are providing your body with the rest it needs while still engaging in beneficial activities.
Prioritize sleep and nutrition
Active recovery extends beyond physical activity. Adequate sleep and proper nutrition are crucial for optimal recovery. Ensure you are getting enough sleep and consuming nutrient-rich foods that support muscle repair and growth.
Incorporate relaxation techniques
Explore various relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or gentle yoga poses to reduce stress and promote mental well-being. These techniques can aid in overall recovery and help you maintain a positive mindset.
Scheduling time to actively recover
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how you should practice active recovery. The type and frequency of active recovery sessions will vary depending on your individual needs, fitness level, and the intensity of your regular workouts.
It can be helpful to build a sustainable weekly schedule. Some general considerations you may follow include:
- 1-2 times a week: If you have a relatively moderate exercise routine and aren’t pushing your limits too often, one or two active recovery sessions per week may suffice.
- 3-4 times a week: If you engage in moderate to high-intensity workouts several times a week, consider incorporating active recovery on most non-workout days.
- Daily: If you have a highly intense training schedule or are a professional athlete, daily active recovery, even for short periods, can be beneficial. It may be helpful to schedule active recovery sessions immediately after your more strenuous workouts.
Remember, active recovery is not about pushing yourself to the limit but rather allowing your body to recharge and restore itself. By designing an effective active recovery plan that caters to your specific needs, you can experience all the benefits of restorative practices.
The Active Recovery Mindset
For the many who are taught that the only way to get fitter or better is to push ourselves past our limits, breaking away from the social stigmas around “softer exercise” begins with adopting a mindset of self-compassion.
Active recovery is an act of grace for yourself. Making the choice to engage in mindful movement and restorative practice cultivates resilience, enhances your capacity for adaptability, and develops an expanded skillset to listen to your body and recognize your own needs.
Rather than viewing recovery as a sign of weakness or failure, it’s helpful to adopt an active recovery mindset and embrace the kindness inherent in doing less. Integrating self-compassion into your workouts is a life-changing process that teaches not only is it ok to be kind to yourself, accept your limitations, and seek a balance between stress and ease in your fitness practices – it’s the most beneficial choice for your overall wellness.
Active recovery does enhance inner strength — getting your heart pumping in the range of 30 – 60 percent maximum heart rate supports cardiopulmonary and overall fitness. Studies show that Zone 1 and Zone 2 training builds endurance, improves metabolic health, and increases blood flow. It also supports mental and emotional well-being (Presto, 2023).
Shifting into a self-compassionate active recovery mindset is a crucial component of any well-rounded, balanced training program that takes a strong, first step in the direction of reclaiming your equanimity, joy, and wellness through self-care healthcare.
And remember, active recovery exercises aren’t just for the balance of burnout — you can use them as your main exercise regimen or to supplement any sport or activity.
- Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugue, B. (2018). An evidence-based approach for choosing post-exercise recovery techniques to reduce markers of muscle damage, soreness, fatigue, and inflammation: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Frontiers in Physiology, 9(403). DOI: 10.3389/fphys.2018.00403.
- Garg PK, Claxton JS, Soliman EZ, et al. Associations of anger, vital exhaustion, anti-depressant use, and poor social ties with incident atrial fibrillation: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. 2020;0(0).
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