Rest vs Active Recovery


What is the most important part of a training programme? If you answered quality work, speed work, long slow running, hill repeats or strength work, or any combination thereof, you’d be wrong. These are all important aspects of a training programme, but the most important element is recovery. It’s only during recovery that we gain the benefits we seek from hard, quality workouts. – BY RAY ORCHISON

The body is an incredible creation, with many built-in sensors and monitors designed to ensure that the cells and internal systems function at an optimal level, otherwise known as homeostasis. The moment we take the body above this optimal level, however, alarms begin to trigger. For example, if you ran an easy 30 minutes on a cool day, you’d handle the session with no problem at all. However, if you attempted to do the same 30-minute run in a sauna, you would suddenly find yourself struggling to finish, if you manage to finish it at all.

The reason for this is that even though you’re still running the 30 minutes at the same easy pace, the high temperatures and humidity in the sauna together with your work rate causes your core temperature and that of your cells to rise above the normal prescribed range. Your body goes into a state of panic and forces you to either slow down or stop completely, so that homeostasis can be maintained.

Doing it the Right Way
Why am I telling you this? Simple, because this has significant implications when it comes to training. The body will only maintain the resources it feels are needed in order to survive, which basically means that if we keep doing the same things we’re currently doing, we’ll never improve. In order to improve we must therefore push the body outside of the current homeostasis level. When we do this, the body begins to create more resources so that it is not placed under the same stress next time round. This process is called supercompensation.

The thing is this: One cannot simply keep pushing the body each day and expect the body to respond by simply throwing more resources at the problem and shifting the homeostasis levels. This approach will simply lead to a breakdown of the body and it won’t be long before you are injured, sick, have a stress fracture or find yourself with overtraining syndrome. This is where rest and recovery then come into the picture. When the body is stressed, as in a hard training session, and a period of recovery follows this stress, the body then adjusts to a new prescribed or optimal homeostasis range.

Different Types of Rest
Rest comes in a number of shapes and sizes, and of course, one size does not fit all. So before we go any further, take a moment to repeat the golden rule of training a few times over to yourself: “Always listen to your body! Always listen to your body!” How your body responds and what your body dictates trumps any other rules, theories or suggestions.

Rest can be seen as either complete rest from any form of exercise, or it can be seen as active rest or recovery, where you continue to exercise but at a greatly reduced level. Active recovery can either be some form of light cross-training or very easy running at a pace 30 to 45 seconds per kilometre slower than your normal easy pace. Now if you’ve only just started running, then easy days alone are extremely taxing to your body, and you should look to have a complete rest day every second to third day. Once your muscles start to strengthen and your body begins to develop the various enzymes and resources required for running, you can gradually begin to push these rest days out a little. You might start with three rest days a week for six weeks, then reduce it to two rest days for four weeks and then ultimately to one rest day per week going forward.

For a more experienced runner, there really are no rules when it comes to complete rest days. I am by no means suggesting that you should do more running and less resting, but sometimes in order to reach new levels, the body needs to be stretched just a little bit more. So again, listening to your body becomes crucial. Unfortunately, we all have egos, which join us for our training, and this usually means that we ignore the body. As a rule of thumb, I’m therefore going to suggest that you stick to at least one complete or full rest day a week.

Take a Running Break
One of the challenges, specifically with running, is that you continuously use the same muscles in a very similar way over and over again, which sometimes results in overuse injuries. If you are prone to these kinds of injuries, then you will find great benefit from including a few active recovery sessions in your week. For example, one might follow a day of hard track work by a day with just an easy 40-minute swim in the pool. This will not only rest your tired running muscles, but also get some of your other muscles working that you wouldn’t normally train during a run.

Ensuring that you get adequate recovery from your training sessions is crucial. Rest and recovery days are also training days, as it’s during this phase that the body is allowed time to step it up a notch, so be sure to plan your recovery days into your training programme first, before adding any other training elements.