Active Recovery—Why It Can Matter More Than Your Workout

Active Recovery: Why It Matters
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When it comes to fitness, there’s one thing a lot of us get wrong. If you’re looking to see and feel results (think: changing your body composition, being able to lift heavier, running faster for longer), the work isn’t in the workout. It’s in the active recovery.

Wait a minute—what? Doesn’t our fitness progress stem from the moments we’re pushing through a burpee, trying to squeeze in one more pushup, or pulsing through those last 16 counts in Barre? While we’re often led to believe that the harder we push and the more often we train, the faster and more profound our results will be, the truth is those changes aren’t possible if you’re not recovering. 

You’ve heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder.” The same applies to fitness: you want to work out smarter, not harder. A huge part of that is knowing how to tend to your body between training sessions so you can ease inflammation and stress. 

To get you excited about our new mini-program, Recovery Essentials, we tapped Melody D., obé’s Senior Manager of Programming, to explain exactly why active recovery matters. 

The Relationship Between Working Out and Active Recovery

The first thing most people find surprising: training causes inflammation. Exercise brings stress to the body because you’re bringing it out of it’s natural resting state. But unlike the stress you feel when your boss is looming over you with a pressing deadline, this type of stress is beneficial for the body—so long as you give it time to bounce back. 

“Training to create inflammation is a good thing, because the more we do that gradually, the more our body learns how to adapt to and handle that stress,” explains Melody. “Over time, you can then handle more and more stress.”

But, there’s an important caveat. If you’re constantly overloading on training, you’re going to experience constant inflammation, battling mounting stressors. You can probably do yoga every day. But 7 days of nonstop high-intensity workouts like strength training or tough cardio? Not a good idea. 

“You have to give your body time to come back to homeostasis—and that’s where active recovery comes in,” says Melody. “Your goal should be to teach your body how to get back to that resting state ASAP so you can get back to training and push the intensity without burning out.”

Signs and Consequences of Overtraining

One thing to remember: More is not better. More is simply more. Constant inflammation resulting from overtraining can lead to what’s called non-functional overload. In that fight-or-flight state, your exercise doesn’t just no longer serve its purpose—it can be detrimental to your progress and cause regress, Melody explains. 

For example, if weight loss is one of your goals, overtraining can cause hormone imbalances (like cortisol shooting through the roof) which can lead to weight retention. If you’re focusing on building power or endurance, running out of your ATP reserves during anaerobic training (more on that, here!) puts you on track for burnout and chronic fatigue. These types of cycles can then taint your relationship with fitness, making every workout feel like a chore. 

One of the best ways to litmus test yourself is through what’s called a CO2 Tolerance test, which utilizes your breathing to measure your readiness state. A shorter-than-usual exhale usually indicates you need some more recovery time. If you follow the Recovery Essentials program, you’ll take this test on Day 1 of each week, giving you a chance to track your progress. 

Other signs of overtraining include:
  • Fluctuating energy levels. Feeling extra fatigued or having inconsistent bursts of energy surges. 
  • Poor sleep hygiene. If you’re not getting enough sleep, or are getting lots of sleep but still not feeling recharged. 
  • Mood shifts. Any deviation from your norm—feeling more tired, sad, cranky, aggressive, or stressed can all be indicators thanks to the way overtraining affects hormones. 
  • Feeling weak. Exercises that once felt easy or moderate now feel difficult. Maybe you’re lifting the same weight and can’t level up or you have to drop down. You should be able to do certain moves and if you can’t do them to your capabilities, that’s a sure sign for rest. 

The Magic of Active Recovery

Think of active recovery as a full-on restoration mode for your muscles. Any type of low-intensity movement—like walking, swimming, yoga, mobility work, or self-massage—can help facilitate this type of reset. Even moving your breath through intentional breathwork counts. 

When you’re pushing your anaerobic threshold with higher-intensity classes like HIIT or Power, you build up fluid in the cells of your muscles. “That’s why you look pumped or jacked after a workout,” says Melody. “You’re swole.” Doing any type of active recovery on your off-training days will shift that fluid around and get the blood flow going again. 

Just make sure to go for a different modality with different movement patterns so you don’t engage the same muscle groups. For example, if you’re doing heavy lower-body strength training on Monday, you could go for an easy walk, power walk, or low-impact Dance Cardio class on Tuesday. It can still be a “workout” that gets your heart rate up without providing the same muscular fatigue. 

“You’re rebuilding those muscles, flushing out the fluid, and getting your circulation going—but you’re not creating stress,” Melody says. “Mobility workouts and Yoga classes are also amazing for this because you move your body through a full range of motion and lubricate all those joints.”

Active recovery also reduces lactic acid buildup and muscle soreness while boosting performance, helping your body adapt better in the future. “By the way, being sore is not a bad thing. It’s not an inherent indicator of overtraining,” says Melody. “But when it gets to the point that you’re compensating your movement patterns because of the soreness, that’s when you need to pause so you don’t push yourself to injury.” 

What About Passive Recovery?

Melody isn’t so sure she buys into the idea of “passive recovery,” or doing no activity or intentional practice to facilitate recovery. “If you want to encourage the benefits of your hard work, doing something, even if it’s breathwork, is important,” she says. “You could be lying in bed, but still being intentional to bring your body back to homeostasis.”

If you need a full break, you have full permission to be passive. But just know that it won’t get you the benefits of active recovery. This can be the right move for you if you’re recovering from an injury or having an extreme bout of exhaustion. Otherwise, try not to think of movement as all or nothing. 

“I encourage people to do some form of movement every day,” says Melody. “If we’re talking about longevity, we were made to move our bodies daily. That doesn’t and shouldn’t mean you need to train or do fitness every day. There’s an ebb and flow, but you’re always moving—just at different intensities.” 

The Recovery Essentials Program and Forms of Active Recovery

If you’re not sure how to start incorporating more active recovery in your life—or just want to learn more techniques—our new Recovery Essentials program will be your guide. Over 4 weeks, your obé instructors will teach you how to level up your recovery through 4 key modalities. You can use these classes as a supplement post-workout or as an aid for rest days! 

Here are the modalities the program will cover with 5-10 minute Express classes, four times a week:

  • Mobility work: These classes ensure you’re working through different ranges of motion safely and effectively. It’s also preferable to static stretching post-workout, especially if you’ve just done high-intensity strength or cardio. 
  • Breathwork: Controlling your breathing through various techniques allows you to signal your nervous system that it’s okay to get out of fight-or-flight mode and chill. This is a great form of active recovery to add after any workout to help down-regulate the stress response and get you back to a parasympathetic state. Try it daily, on your days off, or even before bed! (More on the benefits of breathwork, here.)
  • Walk + Talks: Walking is amazing for recovery—and you can do it every single day (yes, we do consider it one of the most underrated exercises ever). To pair your guided session, the obé instructors will share some wellness tips and tricks around nutrition, hydration, sleep, stress management, and more.
  • Self-massage and myofascial release: Think foam rolling and using a massage ball. These modalities get your circulation going and reduce swelling in the cells. You’re finessing the mind-muscle connection, which helps you send a signal to your body that it’s okay to release tension. It’s a great way to slip into relaxation. 

As you go through these modalities, pay attention to what you’re enjoying the most. Your best active recovery option will be the one that you get excited to incorporate regularly into your routine, so you can always maximize your workout benefits. Happy recovering!

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    • Kseniya Sovenko

      A former pro ballroom dancer, Kseniya began her fitness journey at age 5. Over the years, she’s supplemented her training with everything in the boutique fitness scene—from vigorous Bikram Yoga and Pilates reformer classes to weekly HIIT, Metcon, and Tabata workouts, Muay Thai, strength training, and more. Kseniya graduated from the University of Washington with degrees in journalism and sociology. You can find her work in The Guardian, Capitol Hill Times, The Seattle Globalist, and more.

    One response to “Active Recovery—Why It Can Matter More Than Your Workout”

    1. I just started the Recovery essentials program and really liked the CO2 tolerance test in the first class! Can’t wait to start tracking!

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