Recovery is just as important to performance as training hard is. Recovery allows our bodies to rebuild, adapt and grow. Without it, our hard work is useless. So what does recovery look like, and how much time does it take to truly recover from a training session? Like most things, the answer depends. In this article I’ll break down the differences between active and passive recovery, the time it takes for our bodies to recover from training, and the importance of listening to our bodies.
Passive vs. Active Recovery
When you think of recovery you might picture sleeping or hanging out on the couch, and while these things certainly fit into the recovery category, so can an easy bike ride or even a training session.
Passive recovery strategies include things where you don’t have to physically move. High quality sleep is one of the most effective passive recovery strategies. Napping, breathing exercises and meditation are shorter strategies that will help relax your central nervous system, allowing your body to send blood flow and resources to the systems that need repairing, such as your muscles. If you have access to compression boots or similar recovery devices, this can help with blood flow during passive recovery. Prioritizing this type of recovery can have a huge impact on how well and how quickly we recover. A lot of these methods are free and simple, but many people don’t get the adequate rest they need. Simply getting an extra 15-30 minutes of sleep each night can make a big difference in how you perform the next day.
Active recovery strategies require some sort of movement. They take more physical work than passive strategies, but they help immensely with improving blood flow to your muscles and flushing out a build up of hydrogen ions (what most people think of as lactic acid). Active recovery could be as simple as going for a light walk, swim or bike, or even a modified training session. You’ll generally want to keep the volume and intensity lower than a usual training session, but you can still get benefits from practicing your sport on a recovery day. What you do on an active recovery day may look very different to someone else's. A professional runner might have an “easy eight miles”, while for someone else that might be an extremely tough day. It is all relative to your regular training load. Other methods of active recovery include foam rolling, mobility, yoga, massage, and stretching. If you are feeling particularly sore and stiff, working through movements with larger ranges of motion can help loosen you up.
The amount of time your body needs to recover between training sessions depends greatly on the type of exercise, the intensity of exercise and the volume of exercise. Unfortunately there is no black and white road map, but there is a lot of research based evidence that gives us valuable insight into how long you need to recover to be able to perform optimally again. After high intensity and/or high volume training, you will likely want to wait at least 48 hours before completing a similar workout. If you can wait even longer, 72 hours will give you a better chance of high performance. This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything during the days in between, but what you do should look different. For lower intensity training, most people need only 24 hours to adequately recover. Some highly trained athletes might be able to perform multiple training sessions in a day if their bodies have adapted to this, but even then their training sessions usually look different. Maybe they have their sport practice in the morning and a lift in the evening, allowing one physiological system to recover while they train another. Recovery time can vary based on other factors such as sleep, nutrition and external stressors.
Listening to Your Body
Potentially the most underrated key to recovery is listening to your body. Whether it’s a piece of technology telling you you’re ready to go, or a motivational drive to push yourself, it can be hard to pay attention to what your body is telling you. Start paying attention to when you feel sore, fatigued or stressed. Notice if your performance has taken a dip. Maybe you’ve been extra hungry lately, or you’ve been having trouble sleeping. These can all be signs that your body might be craving some time to recover. This doesn’t mean you need to stop training, but you might need to prioritize some recovery strategies or adjust your training plan a bit. It can be hard to tell exactly what your body needs, but if you start paying attention you’ll notice that your body gives you cues all the time.