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Active Recovery, What is it, and how should I apply it?

Here’s a question I get from time to time, and it’s also something I feel to be extremely important, especially for the majority of the people I train.

A huge amount of my crew are involved in contact sport, either full contact martial arts, Rugby or Ireland’s native GAA.

For my foreign readers, GAA comes in two codes, Football and Hurling. Football is essentially a fight with a football involved, but in hurling, they’re armed with sticks. Have a look:

Sorry about the music…….

Anyhow, what’s that go to do with active recovery?

Well think about it, these guys all go through flurries of highly intense activity, often involving giving and taking heavy hits, interspersed with periods of lower intensity activity. So the better able an athlete is to recovery between these bursts, the better able they will be to perform when the next flurry happens.

The ability to recover is paramount to athletic domination, especially if you’re performing in a chaotic, full contact environment.

This is a little thing that my original coach and Sensei, Jack Parker drilled into me as I was growing up. And it’s a lesson I have taken to heart.

So what is active recovery and how can we optimise our recovery between bouts/sets.

Active recovery is simply being active while recovering from the high intensity set. This means walking around shaking the arms and legs, bouncing up and down on the spot or taking care of a mobility issue as you bring your heart rate and breathing back closer to homeostasis. As you do these motions, focus on the breath. Recovering the breath is key.

The better we breath, the more gas exchange we will have and the better our muscles will refuel.

Here’s the counter intuitive part though:

Exhale as violently as possible, at least at the start. Don’t pay any attention to your inhales, they’ll take care of themselves as a reflex action. And we all know that reflex actions are faster and more powerful than conscious actions. So the harder we blow out, the harder we trigger the tonic breath reflex and the more air we will unwittingly suck in.

As your heart rate slows and normal vision returns, you can exhale gradually less aggressively, aiming to get as close to a normal breathing pattern as quickly as possible. Adding in gentle movement helps the process, to be honest, I don;t know the answer why this is so and I’ll not bullshit you with made up facts, like so many other internet Guru’s do. All I know is that when I bang out a hard set of something, in fact just the other day I was training Kettlebell Long Cycle (Clean & Jerk). I did 5 x 2min sprints with a 1 min break between sets with a pair of 20kg bells. This was after setting a PR with my Barbell Power Clean into Front Squat.

As soon as the buzzer sounded the end of the second minute, I’d dump the bells, and forcefully blow air out repeatedly, essentially hyper ventilating, while at the same time very loosely bouncing up and down. Within 20 seconds, my breath had returned to a level where I could relax and switch to automatic. I still kept moving, chalking hands etc, but I was about ready and by the time the minute was up, I was well able for the next set.

During the strength work prior to this, I still used similar breathing practices between sets, but as it wasn’t such a cardio exercise, I wouldn’t need to be as aggressive with the breath, but I would stretch the lats, shake my arms and legs and just keep moving gently until ready for the next set.

Where people go wrong is they work between sets, this is NOT recovering.

Yes we can Super Set, but that goes like so:

1A: Squat 1B: Push Up Rest 30-60 seconds between 1A & 1B, repeat for three rounds.

Here you do your heavy squat, rest a while, do your active recovery breathing and shaking, then knock out your push ups, repeat the active recovery before returning to the squats.

Your still recovering. Yes you get less time between 1A and 1B than you would if you were doing just straight sets, but in total, you get a full recovery period, two full recovery sections and the time you’re doing push ups. Often times you end up resting longer between sets of squats than you might have normally.

What we want to avoid, unless pure work capacity is the goal, is to go back and forth between two exercises without rest. This will not breed strength or power gains, but will increase your basic endurance capability.

So to wrap up:

Take time to recover between sets.

During this time, to exhale vigorously triggering the tonic breath reflex and promoting gas exchange.

Move, but keep it gentle. Bouncing loosely or doing gentle mobility work is ideal.

Applying this principle will aid you either save time in the gym, increase work capacity or become a more efficient athlete out in the arena.

It’s a topic I’ll be discussing in much more detail this Sunday at the Bodyweight Training Workshop.

Try it.

Dave Hedges

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