Don’t just lie there: Active recovery for top performance

As a long-time coach of elite athletes, my biggest task has always been to “force” my athletes to rest. The biggest challenge for any endurance athlete is proper recovery.

Years ago I was working with a junior national team road cyclist to help transition him to racing in the elite division. He had been a dominant winner in his region as a junior, but now he was going to race much longer distances at higher speeds against seasoned pros.

Despite a carefully detailed training regimen focused on high intensity, shorter distances with lots of recovery, my star pupil just could not restrain himself and ended up overtraining to “make up” for the longer distances in the senior races. A proven winner, he quickly began getting dropped in all his races and even got lapped at the provincial championships.

I made the decision to take his bike away from him for an entire week and ordered him to walk his family dog daily – every morning and every evening. After a week off the bike, he returned to racing and promptly won against all the top riders in his region!

How? By overtraining, he had taxed his system. His cortisol levels were through the roof. He needed rest. But lying around a couch is only good to a point. In order to recover properly, many top athletes adopt what I call active recovery. By finding a gentle and complementary exercise to do on your off days, you actually speed recovery but encourage your body to produce the ‘happy’ hormone serotonin, lower cortisol levels, flush lactic acid, and mentally refresh.

Suggestions for active recovery for runners, cyclists and Crossfitters:

  • If you are a Crossfit fanatic, work in gentle cardio on your rest day. Try walking, yin yoga (90% stretching) or a fun eye/hand sport like ping pong.
  • If you are a runner, do some core exercises or just play in a pool to move the body, allowing the cool water to speed recovery and refresh your senses.
  • As a cyclist, one of my favourite things to do on my rest day is to stand-up paddle board. This gives me a nice core and upper body workout, without taxing my legs. And getting out on the lake for sunrise is just about the best mental break I can give myself.

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