Musings on active recovery

In keeping with my own posting of random snippets of conversation, this is a blog post, of sorts, musing on what defines active recovery, and whether or not a “lower intensity” metcon session involving lighter weight or lower rep explosive movements (muscle ups, snatches, etc.) could EVER be considered active recovery by CrossFit athletes.

Without further ado:

Ok, to back up a moment- I think it’s a good idea to really define active recovery.  As I usually define it, there are two kinds of active recovery- generalized and specific.  In both cases, I define active recovery as any intentional activity, sport or otherwise, that represents a level of effort greater than regular daily activity, but below the threshold for adaptation, and allowing for an aggregate reduction in fatigue.

Generalized active recovery is meant to facilitate systemic or overall recovery, while specific active recovery is meant to facilitate system specific recovery (psychological, neurological, localized inflammation, etc.), while potentially having a training effect in other arenas.  An example of specific active recovery would be utilizing extended zone 2 conditioning as active recovery from extended lifting sessions- the increased blood flow and relaxed mental state may help lifters recover faster from intense training sessions, though overall systemic fatigue may increase, and there will be a training effect for certain aerobic systems.  Generalized active recovery could be a walk with the dog or SHORT easy run- not enough for a training effect, little glycogen depletion, and little stress to the cardiovascular system.  (Want to make your run form as efficient as it can possibly be?  A gait analysis can tell you where you might be wasting energy or contributing to overuse issues!)

Generally speaking, keeping activity aerobic is a decent proxy for managing the stress level of generalized active recovery- aerobic activity is characterized by a preponderance of energy contributions coming directly via aerobic pathways, with little stress to more short term energy systems.  The reason why short bursts of explosive activity do NOT satisfy this requirement is the physiology is dramatically different.  “aerobic” activity, with low levels of muscular contraction and incomplete vascular occlusion, increased preload of the heart, and minimal utilization of glycogen stores (and, quite frankly, minimum usage of the ATP/PCr system and little lactate production) is exceedingly UNstressful, particular to conditioned CrossFit athletes. 

Interval work that includes explosive movement or barbell cycling, unless the load is lower than would be experienced during repetitive movements like slow running or rowing, doesn’t fit these criteria.  Though overall heart rate is low and the movements are sustainable, the physiology is dramatically different.  Momentary vascular occlusion is complete.  Momentary load on the muscle fibers is extremely high, and neurologically speaking a skill movement is mildly taxing even to an experienced athlete.  Preload is minimal, contributions from the ATP/PCr system is high, and anaerobic glycolysis may take place during certain movements (like wall balls).  Again, sustainability does not dictate stress!

Now, for an endurance athlete, this may STILL function as specific active recovery.  If they have just completed an extremely long duration run or ride, the full range of motion and stretch/shortening cycle at higher joint angles may actually help restore movement and prevent the athlete from tightening up.  This could hasten their recovery with regards to running, specifically, as the stressors are drastically different.

For a CrossFit athlete, there’s no such thing as systemic active recovery- the modalities and time domains trained are too varied to have any particular high intensity or long duration activity speed ANY sort of recovery, so active recovery should be well below threshold, and preferably either completely aerobic (as near as possible), or so low in load that the athlete could cycle the movement indefinitely, without pause, for an extended period of time without significant fatigue.  Few of these movements, including 165# snatches and muscle ups, satisfy those requirements.  The argument that they are sustainable is completely irrelevant.  The discrete load on the system is outside “recovery” parameters, and simply because an athlete can endlessly cycle a moderate weight barbell with brief rest periods fo 30 minutes does not make this a movement that is facilitating repair or recovery of ANY system.

Have any specific questions on active recovery?  Contact us!

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