Active Recovery Days: When You Do Not Quite Need a Day Off

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Active recovery days from working out can include yoga.
A1C Jayme Ratcliff, 324th Intelligence Squadron fusion analyst, practices yoga on Hickam Beach on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Jan. 31, 2020. (Airman 1st Class Erin Baxter/U.S. Air Force photo)

If you work out hard on a regular daily schedule year-round, you will have a few days a week when you need a bit more recovery. Maybe you got a poor night's sleep or haven't had the best nutrition in the past few days, but something has you out of sorts and you're not at 100% going into a workout day.

What do you do? Do you mentally push through and work out anyway, fighting the urge to slack off? Do you pull back a bit and not go as hard-core as you originally had planned? This is a debate that many advanced-level tactical athletes have a few times a month, if not weekly.

Here are some active recovery answers for you if you see signs of overtraining or under-recovery start to manifest themselves:

50% of the workout. This method has been helpful over the years toward the middle or end of the week, when you know going into a hard leg day or heavy weight or high calisthenics volume day that a full workout is not going to be the smartest option. This is when your body is talking to you, not your mind being lazy. Maybe you are still sore from previous workouts, long runs or rucks and need to mix in more easy cardio, flexibility and mobility work, but don't want to take a full mobility day.

Here is what you do:

Set your timer for five minutes. Do the workout as written for five-minute segments but follow the five minutes of work with five minutes of easy cardio, stretching or foam rolling. Repeat that process for 45-60 minutes at a moderate level of intensity and pace. You will find that you still will do about 50% of the written workout of the day, but you also will mix in needed flexibility, mobility and pain-relieving activities.

Usually, the day after I have opted for a 50% workout day, a mobility day is on the schedule. You either can move the mobility day a day earlier and continue the week with the regularly scheduled workout days, or you can take the 50% workout as "good enough" for Day 3 and move into Day 4 mobility as written. This has been an excellent 1-2 punch for midweek recovery. The combination really helps with being well-prepared for Day 5 and Day 6, especially if those workouts are going to be challenging.

Mobility day or yoga class: We always do a regularly scheduled mobility day on Thursdays. This enables the group to push hard on split routines and cardio activities for three days (Monday-Wednesday) and have a recovery day, using the following methods to prepare better for an equally challenging Friday and Saturday workout.

Here is the mobility day workout.

Mobility Day

Repeat 5 times

Cardio: 5 minutes (non-impact preferred)

Stretch, foam roll, massage tool: 5 minutes

Another option we have is to do the mobility day for 30 minutes, then join in on a regularly scheduled yoga class. A yoga class is always an excellent active recovery day, plus the 30 minutes spent warming up for it makes the yoga stretching more tolerable for novice yoga participants like myself. It is nice not to feel pain or soreness when the workout is over. This 1-2 combo allows for that wonderful effect.

Pool Day

Replacing a workout with a session in the pool is one of my favorite options. A quick 10- to 15-minute swim, followed by a 10-minute tread and running in place, topped off with a series of dynamic stretches (leg swings, butt kickers, high knees, running in place, etc.) can make a 30-minute pool session as useful as a mobility and yoga day combo. In fact, we often will top off the mobility and yoga combo above with the 30-minute, three-step pool session (swim, tread, dynamic stretches) as a complete 90-minute "active rest day."

Full Day Off

If you take a day off from hard training, you still can relax and take a nap if you need it, but also go for a walk, bike ride or do yard work. The goal of this option is to avoid the planned workout of the day and opt for staying moderately active with easy non-impact cardio options or easy work around the house.

Some days, you need one of these, but it should not necessarily be a common option. One or two non-workout days a week is plenty, especially if your workouts are tough but mixed with an active recovery day.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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