Active Recovery

When used strategically, an active recovery session can make a positive difference in sensations of fatigue, soreness, and mental well-being. In this article, we’ll explore why active recovery is beneficial and how to structure these sessions into a training plan.

What is the Goal of Active Recovery Session?

Promote Blood Flow

Hard training causes microtrauma to muscles. Light exercise will help promote blood flow and shuttle nutrients to the damaged muscles which aid in the recovery process.

Maintain Training Rhythm

For many athletes, a break between challenging training sessions can disrupt maintaining a training rhythm. Incorporating active recovery sessions instead of passive rest days can help maintain an athlete’s sense of flow both mentally and physically.

Maintain A Balanced Body

Incorporating a variety of active recovery modalities into an athlete’s training regimen can help ensure overused muscles get a break and under-used muscles see some action.

What Types of Exercise are Ideal for Active Recovery?

Any exercise that is light enough to promote blood flow and avoid the accumulation of additional fatigue or soreness. Active recovery training sessions are most commonly performed using aerobic training modalities, such as cycling, swimming, jogging, or walking. Examples of non-aerobic active recovery exercises are yoga, light strength training, pilates, and paddleboarding.

During highly focused periods of the season, it’s best to stick to the primary sport for active recovery. The best time of year to introduce new forms of exercise is the off-season or general base training period. If overuse injuries and/or mental burnout have been an issue, then using a variety of different training modalities can be helpful year-round.

Active Recovery Intensity

Active recovery rides should feel very easy. It is very common for athletes to push too hard during active recovery sessions and slow the recovery process. Using a power meter or heart rate monitor can help ensure that the correct intensities are adhered to. Some athletes find this is the perfect time to ride with a spouse, child, or anyone else that would prefer a gentle cruise to a brisk training ride.

Power Guidelines

The active recovery power range is <55% of functional threshold power (FTP). This range is also referred to as Zone 1 in the most commonly used threshold-based zone training methods. Brief moments of riding at higher intensities won’t ruin an active recovery session, but the average and normalized power should ideally stay under the 55% threshold for the duration of the ride.

Heart Rate Guidelines

The active recovery heart rate range is <68% of threshold heart rate (THR). his range is also referred to as Zone 1 in the most commonly used threshold-based zone training methods. Occasional spikes in heart rate are okay as this will happen even on easy climbs. The goal for the duration of the ride is to keep the average heart rate below the 68% threshold.

Non-Aerobic Exercise Guidelines

Rate of perceived exertion is the best guideline when a power meter or heart rate monitor cannot be used. Using a 1-10 Borg Scale, active recovery exercises should be performed at levels 1 to 2.

Active Recovery Duration

The key determinants of active recovery duration should be an athlete’s current training load, training age, and time availability. 15 minutes of light exercise (the duration of a typical warm-up) is a good baseline for the minimum session length. For advanced athletes, extended sessions of 90-120 minutes are quite common.

Guidelines for determining session length

  • At least 15 minutes

  • Up to 25% of the longest training session from the last 90-days of training.

  • When in doubt, shorter is better. The goal of this ride is to promote recovery, not improve fitness.

Additional Considerations for Active Recovery Sessions

Time

If finding time for an active recovery session on a busy day becomes a challenge consider shortening, changing, or eliminating it entirely. 15 minutes of walking after dinner are superior to a rushed lunchtime ride.

Weather

Extreme heat, cold, or inclement weather can create additional stress. Consider shortening the session or moving indoors when the weather isn’t ideal.

Mood

It’s important to relax and have fun during an active recovery session. This is especially true during the off-season or anytime feelings of mental burnout are creeping in. As long as the guidelines discussed in this article are being followed, changing the scheduled training type or length to match your mood will be beneficial.

Hard Training + Recovery = Improved Performance

By: Coach Kent Woermann

Kent Woermann is the owner/operator of Move Up Endurance Coaching. He is currently a Certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach and has been coaching cyclists for over a decade. Kent is also an active racer holding a category 1 license in road, mountain bike, and cyclocross disciplines.