Why your recovery sessions are doing more harm than good

What would you say if I suggested that the ideal active recovery session should take no more than 14 minutes?

Yes that’s right. 14 minutes.

We all want to recover faster from, and adapt to, the hours of hard training we do.

But what if your recovery sessions actually reduce your chances of achieving your goals?

An easy 30 minute run or an easy 45 minutes bike ride is often said to be a good form of active recovery as it flushes your body with blood that is packed full of nutrients, allowing your body to recover from earlier training sessions.

However the actual hormone responses that occur in your body as a result of this kind of session may have the opposite effect.

You can actually be doing more harm– causing even more tissue damage or breakdown – without realising it.

Why your recovery sessions are doing you harm

Cortisol is a hormone produced by your body to manage stress – regardless of whether that stress is physical, emotional or mental.

It is a catabolic hormone. Not only does it break down existing muscle tissue but it also reduces your body’s ability to build new muscle. In effect, having elevated levels of cortisol for a prolonged period of time can make it more difficult for your body to repair itself and grow stronger.

Continuous or steady state exercise – like going for an easy 30 minute run or an easy 45 minute bike ride – is a stress and your body will produce cortisol to manage that stress.

Emotional stress at work or home can also increase your levels of cortisol, further reducing your body’s ability to repair itself after training or racing.

Much of what happens in our busy lives is outside our control. But the way we structure our recovery sessions is (generally) within our control. Changing your recovery session is a quick & easy way to reduce the amount of cortisol your body produces, improving its ability to repair and grow stronger, faster & fitter.

How should I structure my recovery sessions? 

Cortisol is always present in your body. But it increases significantly when you do continuous or steady-state exercise:

(1)    for more than (approximately) 15 minutes OR

(2)    at a high(er) intensity.

So the ideal recovery session is simply one involving continuous or steady state exercise –

(1)    for no more than 15 minutes; and

(2)    at a low intensity; no higher than 65% of your maximum heart rate.

How you do this session is entirely up to you! Swim, ride, walk the dog, play with the kids – whatever it is you enjoy.

If you want to do a longer recovery session, combine your 14mins of continuous exercise with other things that help to restore your body to optimal health & allow it to recover.

By way of example, if you want to do a 30 minute session, you could include –

– 5 minutes of self myofascial release using a foam roller or tennis ball to address any sore or tight spots;

– 5 minutes of movement preparation or mobilisers;

– no more than 15 minutes of continuous / steady-state exercise at no higher than 65% of your maximum heart rate, then finish with

– 5 minutes of stretching.

Other things you could include in a longer R&R session include massage, ice baths, hot tubs & even meditation.

What are the benefits? 

There are many great reasons to adopt this structure for your recovery sessions –

(1)    it is fast & will save you lots of time compared to the recovery sessions you previously did;

(2)    you still get the ‘high’ that comes with exercise due to the release of endorphins; and

(3)    it will flush your body with oxygen & nutrient-rich blood & remove toxins from your lymphatic system allowing your body to repair itself, adapt to the training stimulus & grow stronger.

So try this session for yourself & share with me –

  • how you normally feel after a recovery session?
  • what difference did you notice after this recovery session?