Sunday, November 10, 2013

Resting Done Right: Passive Rest or Active Recovery to Get the Most Out Of Your Workouts? Plus: How Do They Work?

Passive rest can be really enjoyable, but is it as productive?
An article by Alex Leaf (CPT)

In a typical training day, you may spend an hour in the gym training. Probably, you won't spend that whole hour pounding away at one muscle. Instead, you may focus on two or three muscle groups or perhaps even full-body with the burning desire to elicit a growth response that will take you one rep closer to your goals. From this perspective, the time you spend not training those muscles can be thought of as recovery time, and muscles need plenty of that. In fact, MacDougall, et al. (1995) found that muscle protein synthesis increases rapidly following resistance training (12 sets of 6- to 12-RM) and is nearly double baseline values at 24 hours post-exercise.

This was later expanded upon by Phillips, et al. (1997) who looked at both protein synthesis and protein breakdown following a session of resistance training (8 sets of 8RM) and found that the net protein synthesis was significantly elevated above baseline up to 48 hours following exercise. But exercise itself is catabolic, and to continuously strain your body will only diminish the potential for muscle growth and performance enhancement. So what to do during the recovery time? Eating right, getting adequate sleep, limiting life stressors are all great first steps and will undoubtedly help, but I’m talking activity wise.

Stetting the scene ⇒ Defining Terms

The idea of passive rest should be pretty straight forward: This is when you do nothing. You go about your normal day without doing much more than walking. When you think about it, passive rest is pretty much what the majority of the overweight and metabolically-impaired population is doing 24/7 x 365 years a day.
Passive rest vs. active recovery and rest between sets are two pairs of shoes. If you want to learn more about the latter, you may want to review Adel's True or False Article "True or False? Lower Rest Times Equate Lower Total Work Volume for a Given Workout. Plus: The Volume-Increasing Beauty of Progressive Exercise-To-Rest Ratios" | read more
In contrast, active recovery can be thought of as exercise performed at a reduced intensity and volume relative to the typical workout. It could be a light or easy day in the gym, or just being active in your leisure time. Context is key here, as a marathoner may just do a light jog, an Olympic lifter may do some technique work, and a totally unfit beginner exerciser may find anything beyond walking to be too stressful on the body to allow for recovery. The point is that active recovery should not be fatiguing and you should finish the workout or activity feeling better than when you started.

From Active Rest to Active Recovery

So what is the point of active recovery? There are at least three reasons why you and everyone else who is taking his or her training seriously may want to implement active recovery techniques into his or her training regimen - in a nutshell:
  • Active recover may help you recover quicker and reduce soreness from the previous workout. 
  • Depending on your goals and how you go about it, active recovery could also let you burn some calories and work on training technique. 
  • And finally active recovery may serve some important psychological benefits not the least of which is that many people simply feel better when they exercise daily; movement is known to be able to elevate mood among other things. 
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the actual pros and cons of active recovery.
  • The main benefits of active recovery are actually a perfect example of where common sense and science get along: A light workout pumps some blood to the working muscles and can take advantage of this increased blood flow to deliver nutrients crucial for repair and growth while removing metabolic wastes.
Some may argue, though, that active recovery detracts from the recovery process through repartitioning nutrients towards fueling activity. In fact, Choi, et al. (1994) confirmed this: Light activity following a glycogen depleting workout does indeed lead to less net glycogen synthesis than passive rest and may even continue to lower glycogen levels if in a fasted state. And that last part is key.
Optimal glycogen repletion | more
How to counter the negative effects of active recovery on protein synthesis and glycogen repletion? Eat! Yes, it is as simple as eating beforehand. Performing light activity does not impede post-exercise glycogen resynthesis rates (Futre, et al. 1987), so whether you enjoy cycling away after a heavy leg session or playing some football with your friends the next day, just be sure to eat something first and reap the benefits of increased blood flow and nutrient delivery.
Although we possess the ability to partially recover glycogen stores via glycogenesis from both amino acids and lactate under fasting conditions (Fournier, et al. 2004), this is obviously not ideal and no one should hope to recover from intense training without eating. This is particularly true in view of the fact that fasting will limit the availability of nutrients that are necessary to enhance the protein synthetic response to exercise (Wolfe 2006).
Protein (g/kg bodyweight) Carbohydrates (g/kg bodyweight)
Weight Training0.3-0.5 0.3-1.5
Endurance Training0.15-0.35 1.0-1.85
Table 1: Optimal post-workout nutrient intake for athletes (McDonald 2007).
As for metabolic waste, light activity following strenuous exercise has been shown to enhance blood lactate clearance (McLoughlin, McCaffrey and Moynihan 1991), and lower levels of creatine kinase (Gill, Beaven and Cook 2006). If the active recovery comes soon after the training session, then it may also serve as a cool-down that helps smooth the decline in body temperature, dampen nervous system activity, and strengthen the immune system (Reilly and Ekblom 2005).

Waste & Body Temperature, Mood & Psyche - Where Bro- & Proscience Unite

Waste removal an the normalization of the body temperature, together, may help reduce the likelihood of developing delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It is thus no wonder that not passive rest, but exercise has been shown to be one of the most effective means of reducing the symptoms of DOMS - at least termpoarily, as the pain usually returns upon cessation of the exercise (Cheung, Hume, & Maxwell, 2003; learn more in the "DOMS Series").
Part IPart II
Just a reminder: For those of you who have not read Alex' two-part series on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness this would be the ideal time to catch up on part I-II "What Is DOMS & How Can It Be Managed?" & "No Pain, No Gain? Is DOMS Necessary to Build Muscle?" of this series.
We should not forget the psychological benefits, either: Most people simply “feel better” after exercise (Berger and Owen 1998), and these benefits are seen almost immediately after just one bout of physical activity (Hansen, Stevens and Coast 2001). Moreover, low-intensity exercise following strenuous exercise has also been shown to enhance relaxation without adversely affecting physiological recovery (Suzuki, et al. 2004).

Beware of the Catch - Don't Turn Recovery Into Training Days!

Although active recovery may not deter from recovery or impact athletic performance (Andersson, et al. 2008), this assumes a relatively light workload. The only real downside to active recovery is that most people aren’t satisfied doing a short and easy workout (Halson and Jeukendrup 2004), and this is most noticeable in young athletes (Winsley and Matos 2001).
Illustration 1: The vicious circle of ever-increasing "recovery intensities" (Moussa. 2013)
With every 'recovery session' intensity and/or duration starts to climb, and what was supposed to be active recovery has turned into a full-blown training session. Light days become medium days, where the exercise is too hard to allow adequate recovery but not hard enough to stimulate fitness gains. Without adequate recovery, the normal hard training days start to become medium days as well and next thing you know the whole week ends up being in a dead-zone. This brings us to the main benefit of passive rest.

Passive Rest: A Safer Alternative?

Alex has written about the dangers of inactivity in Sean Casey's highly recommended CasePerformance newsletter | read more
The true benefit of passive rest is for people who have no self-control in the gym. Basically, if you are the type of person who must 'go hard or go home', then go home and stay out of the gym. Given the benefits of active recovery and lack of shortcomings aside from the above, there really is no reason to spend all day sitting around doing nothing, especially when you consider the downsides of inactivity outside the gym.

I have previously written about the dangers of being sedentary for most the day; and how there is even a new medical term associated with chronic inactivity: active couch potato syndrome, which is used to describe people who suffer from the same health risks as completely sedentary people despite doing moderate to vigorous daily workouts (Leaf. 2013).

That said, there is nothing wrong with taking a break when you need to, and it is not uncommon for many athletes to have at least one day of complete rest each week (usually Sunday).
Things to Remember - The Rules of Active Recovery: 
Understand the difference between recovery and training or you'll fall victim to the Athlete's Triad | more
Assuming you plan on doing active recovery and have the self-control necessary, I am going to give some guidelines that should provide the benefits stated.
  1. The intensity should be about 40%-60% VO2 max for endurance exercise and a maximum of 75% the set RM for strength training.
  2. The volume should be ½ the normal workout.
  3. You should finish feeling better than you started.
So if you normally do 5x5 on squat, you would be doing 2x5 with 75% of your normal 5RM. If you normally run 8 miles, you would dial it back to 4 miles at half your typical heart rate.
And don’t forget about cross training, which is a great weigh to give the commonly used joints a rest. I commonly find myself cycling leisurely on a cycle ergometer for the length of a TV show following a working legs day. The show keeps me entertained and works as a timer; I may break a sweat, but I always finish feeling refreshed and anything but fatigued ⇔ Done correctly, active recovery is superior to passive rest, but only, I repeat, if done correctly.

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