The Bespoken Word

Active Recovery for Extreme Athletes

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Amelia Boone is known as the “Queen of Pain.” After all, the ultra-endurance athlete and obstacle racer has won four consecutive obstacle course world championships, in addition to multiple podium finishes. And she was firmly Team #NoDaysOff. “I didn’t believe in rest days,” she says; she always felt lethargic and sluggish the day after a rest day.

But in 2016, when Boone was at the top of her game, she suffered two stress fractures, one in her femur and one in her sacrum. “That was when I finally started to appreciate the importance of rest as an athlete,” she recalls.

Boone, 34, now has a hard-and-fast rule—one complete rest day a week, scheduled like any other workout. She may take a brisk walk around the office (at her day job as an attorney) to keep her blood moving, and she eats plenty to help her body repair. “It allows me to absorb all the gains from training,” she says. As a result, she’s running stronger and faster than she ever has.

Cutting Back to Go Forward

Over the past several years, the fitness world has focused on high-intensity workouts and extreme sports like CrossFit and adventure racing. The trend has been for harder, faster and more, pushing the body’s physical limits. Yet, there’s a key part of the training cycle that’s often neglected—recovery.

“We live in a society where we get this false sense of accomplishment from a workout,” says chiropractor Kamraan Husain, DC, recovery specialist at Tone House, an extreme group fitness studio in New York City. “More training is not better. Everything we do in the gym or in a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder hurts our bodies.”

Recently, there’s an increasing recognition that recovery matters. Boutique fitness studios, from Tone House to Soul Cycle, offer recovery-based services and classes. Stretching studios, like LYMBR and StretchLab, are cropping up across the country, designed to provide one-on-one stretching to help you move better. There are even recovery-focused studios like ReCOVER. Plus, there’s an endless array of self-massage and compression tools designed to help you work out the kinks at home.

The benefit of active recovery? Fewer aches, pains and injuries—and better athletic performance.

Why Recovery Matters

When you crush a hard workout, up your training load or try a new activity, your body experiences stress. Training causes micro-trauma in your muscles and surrounding tissues; it also produces metabolic waste like blood lactate.

“Recovery helps you get back to your baseline and then past it,” says Cameron Yuen, senior physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City. “You need to give the body time to repair. It builds muscles and bone back up, and it restores hormonal balance,” allowing you to deal with higher training loads and grow stronger. Without allowing for adequate recovery periods, you risk not only physical fatigue but also overuse and overtraining, two of the major contributors to injury and burnout.

Research backs this up. A study performed at Western State Colorado University and sponsored by the American Council on Exercise found that active recovery helps the body bounce back faster. Participants who performed a 15-minute active recovery between time trials were able to maintain endurance performance and sustain power output compared to those who passively rested.

Moving to Recover

Active recovery is a vital part of any training regime, says Yuen. “Anytime you work out, your heart rate increases and blood flows to your arms and legs. If you just stop, your blood pools. The metabolic byproducts of your workout sit stagnant afterwards,” he says. “Active recovery flushes everything out” and brings in blood and nutrients to nourish your muscles. A study published in the Journal of Sports Science found that active recovery after high-intensity exercise clears blood lactate better than passive recovery.

To help pump up your circulation, Yuen recommends including 10 to 15 minutes of post-workout recovery in your routine. This can be a slow ride on a bike or a low-intensity run, in which the focus is on circulating blood to flush your tissues. Or, try a dynamic mobility flow (see box above), not just stretches. Since your joints and tissues are already warmed up, this is a great way to move your joints through their full range of motion.

A cool-down period is also important for down-regulating your nervous system. “When you train, you have to amp yourself up, mentally and physically,” explains Husain. “If you can’t calm yourself down, you’re going to slowly but surely break down the body and mind.”

Revamping Your Schedule

Ideally, Husain recommends three days of recovery for every workout. “But since no one is doing that, you should work in recovery anytime you can,” he says.

Husain advises clients to focus on preparatory work: Take 10 to 15 minutes a day to focus on a specific body part, loosening it up and increasing blood flow. For example, if you work legs on Mondays, take a few minutes to roll out your legs on Sunday night. “Little moments can go a long way,” he says.

There are many tools to help break up adhesions in the body and speed the healing process too, like self-myofascial release tools and hands-on therapy like massage and active release technique (ART). A review published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy found that foam rolling and self-myofascial release techniques enhance range of motion and improve pre- and post-exercise performance.

If you need a little extra guidance, try customized recovery services like the one-on-one sessions at Tone House or stretch studios. “We identify imbalances in the body and areas in the muscle chain that need to be addressed,” says JP Geoghegan, director of marketing at LYMBR. Therapists then administer a series of dynamic stretches to relieve muscular tension, improve range of motion and alignment, and help you achieve your performance goals.

On rest and active recovery days, keep activity light—don’t use it as an excuse to squeeze in an extra sweat session. “A lot of people turn their active recovery into a workout,” says Yuen. “You’d be surprised how easy active recovery should be. Really hold yourself back and keep your heart rate low. Fight your instincts to make it a workout.”

If you want to perform at your peak, don’t write off recovery as a waste of time. “The body craves recovery. We only see results and perform better when we recover,” says Husain.

Dynamic Mobility Flow

After your next workout, try this mobility flow from Cameron Yuen at Bespoke Treatments. Keep the movement fluid; all these exercises start from Downward Facing Dog, with your body in an inverted V-shape.

Calf marches: Slowly bend one knee and drop the opposite heel towards the ground, stretching your calf. Switch sides. Repeat 20 times per leg.

Hip opener: Step your right foot forward and drop your back knee to the ground. Reach your right arm up, opening your chest. Step your right foot back to a plank position. Step your left foot forward and reach your left arm up. Complete five reps per side.

Down to pushup: Come forward to a high plank position. Lower to a pushup and press back up. Then, press your hips back to Down Dog. Repeat 10 times.

Cobra: Come to a high plank position. Lower your hips and legs to the ground; keep your torso upright, press through your palms and roll your shoulders down. Look over your right shoulder and then your left shoulder. Complete five rotations on each side.