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Article - 15 April 2011

Active or Passive recovery? Does it even make a difference?

Active and Passive Recovery – Rest Up to Speed Up

 Training does not make us fitter. We get fitter through recovering from training. Therefore, recovery is of equal significance to training. I actually believe that most triathletes train too hard too often and would perform better if they built more rest into their training week. The reason for this is simple enough; Training is a stressor which unbalances our physiological systems. In order to reinstate that balance, we need to give the body time to regenerate and in return for our patience, the body repays us with a tip. Over time and with careful management, those tips add up and we find ourselves enriched with a new level of fitness. But even something so seemingly straightforward as resting-up comes in two flavours: Active and passive recovery. Active recovery usually refers to taking some form of light exercise and passive recovery is essentially an absence of movement such as sleeping, watching television or reading. But if, in the words of Lance Armstrong ‘Recovery is the name of the game, whoever recovers fastest does the best’, which is the most effective - active or passive and does it even matter?

Active recovery in the minutes immediately following exercise – in other words a cool down - has been shown to help clear the metabolic waste products of exercise more efficiently than if do you nothing at all ie recover passively. The reason for this is that if we can maintain a higher than resting level of blood flow to muscles which are fatigued, in need of nutrients and even damaged at the cellular level, then those muscles are left in the best possible state from which to begin the real recovery process. However, active recovery sessions on a day following a hard workout can be more or less effective depending on how you go about them. The fact is, there is no hard evidence to suggest that taking some light exercise the day after hard training helps you to recover any more quickly than if you just curled up on a sofa. But that is not necessarily a good reason to stop doing it. After all, the sport of triathlon involves skill components such as slick transitioning or good swimming technique, which we could spend more time engraining without increasing fatigue levels. But by far the most important aspect of an active recovery session is how hard you go about it. It cannot be stressed enough that in order to be effective the intensity level of an active recovery session must be kept embarrassingly easy. If you go for a spin and DO NOT get overtaken by old ladies with baskets laden with groceries on the front of their bicycles, then you are going too hard to be a proper recovery session. There are very good scientific reasons for this. Hard training is a form of stress and in response to it the body releases a hormone called cortisol. The job of cortisol, in the first instance, is to act as a natural anti-inflammatory agent but the problem arises when it is allowed to remain in the blood for too long. Then, it can become a real hindrance to an athlete trying to make fitness gains, because it interferes with the transport of protein into muscle cells leading to tissue breakdown and reduced immune function – not great if the main goal of training is to get stronger! So by all means, use active recovery sessions in the days following hard exercise to loosen the legs and work on skills but if they are to be effective and not set your training backwards, then be as disciplined about them as you are with the hard stuff.

Passive recovery on the other hand is about little more than grabbing the latest issue of Triathlon Plus and putting your feet up, perhaps having a massage or watching a movie. What it is not, is a day out walking around the shops for hours on end or, dare I say it, cleaning the house from top to bottom. Just because an activity does not include getting tooled up with heart rate monitors or spraying on the Lycra it can still increase fatigue and delay recovery. Learning to rest well is a skill which the best athletes are really good at and we need to be too if we are going to squeeze every drop of adaptation out of those high intensity sessions. As always in physiology, individuality plays a key role. Find out what works for you and go with it. If a very easy spin on the bike helps you relax and sleep better, there is no harm in it, just don’t make the mistake of being held hostage by your work ethic. If you prefer just to take the day off, then science tells us that we are not putting ourselves at any real disadvantage. The key is to get good at listening to your body, learn to hear the signals when it is telling you it needs rest, irrespective of what your planned training schedule is for the week. Think of recovery days, whether active or passive, as the days that you get fitter and most importantly do them correctly and with discipline. This way you keep your condition improving and great performances will inevitably follow.


Recovery – keep it easy, do it right

 Active Recovery Sessions

 Turbo Session (smooth out pedal stroke)

10mins Easy Spin

10mins Single Leg Drills – alternate one minute Left leg/one minute Right leg. Focus is on keeping upper body still and pedal stroke smooth and controlled. Maintain very easy gear (39X27) throughout.

10mins Easy Spin 

 Swim Drills Session (improve feel for water)(25m pool)

2L Easy Front Crawl – Rest 15s

2L Easy Backstroke – Rest 15s

2L Easy Breaststroke – Rest 15s

2L Easy Front Crawl – Rest 15s

4L Easy Front Crawl with pullbuoy – Rest 30s

4L Easy Front Crawl with Paddles – Rest 30s

4L Easy Front Crawl with fists clenched – Rest 30s

4L Easy Front Crawl with fingers splayed – Rest 30s

4L Easy Front Crawl – Rest 30s

4L Easy Front Crawl with pullbuoy and paddles – Rest 30s

2L Easy Front Crawl – Rest 15s

2L Easy Backstroke – Rest 15s

2L Easy Breaststroke – Rest 15s

2L Easy Front Crawl – Rest 15s

[Total 900m/20-30 mins]


Passive Recovery Session (Errr...improve triathlon knowledge base)

 Arrange sofa in line with foot stool.

Place cup of tea on armrest of sofa.

Turn off mobile phone.

Take latest issue of Triathlon Plus.

Sit back, relax, read, sip tea and get fitter.

[Total 60-90 mins]


Read the previous article: Cycling position effects running economy in triathletes.

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