The active rest paradox

Stop exercising! Now that I have your attention, what I mean is start exercising right. Spoiler alert, I’m not giving you license to kick back and enjoy a sedentary recovery day. I just want to make it clear that cardio training for improving fitness, and facilitating recovery using low impact cardio on your active rest days, are two very different parts of your training protocol.

Quality training should be your priority, not necessarily quantity. Don’t waste time putting in “junk miles” that won’t help you meet your goals, or worse, cause you to get injured. Instead, consider the effects of exercise, and start training smarter by using this low impact cardio workout for a great active rest day.

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Why active recovery?

First of all, let’s establish the physiological consequences of exercise. Endurance exercise causes a host of metabolic, musculoskeletal and neuromuscular insults that your body is forced to overcome.

1. Active recovery to refuel the tank

The first insult is energy demand; exercise is hard (I’m preaching to the choir here, right?)! When you exert yourself, your body has to dip into its fuel reserves to keep up with the intensity of training. There is only enough glycogen (the major source of energy during intense exercise) to keep up with about 60-90 minutes of vigorous effort.

Even if your workouts don’t last that long, your body can’t replenish used glycogen stores between workouts when you don’t have active rest days. Bottom line, your performance goes down when you exercise in a glycogen depleted state (1). Enter active rest day. Keep moving, just drop the intensity enough to allow your body to restore all the fuel you used up.

2. Prepare for impact

Second insult: ground reaction force. Every time you take a step, gravity works on your body to drive your feet into the ground. When running, those forces are multiplied as a result of increased vertical displacement, and single leg stance; key differences compared to walking. The good news is, your muscles are made to be shock absorbers.

The bad news is, this energy absorption leads to muscle damage. Creatine kinase is a commonly used marker for muscle damage, and has been shown to remain elevated in the body up to several days after fatiguing workouts, which also has negative implications for performance (2).

Instead of overusing high-impact workouts, supplement your training routine with low impact cardio to help your body recover from the mechanical demands of your high-intensity training. Another great reason to implement active rest.

3. Exercise is getting on your nerves

On days not set aside for low-impact active recovery, there is a third insult: neuromuscular control. Neuromuscular fatigue is implicated in decreased performance due to diminished proprioceptive control (knowing where your body is in space).

Essentially, one result of your strenuous workout is decreased communication between your brain and skeletal muscles, which can lead to injury, and reduced performance (4). Changing your routine to fit in active rest days takes advantage of a low impact cardio workout, which reduces the neuromuscular demand.

A low impact cardio workout for a great active rest day2

Don’t waste your time

Now that the need is established, here is a great low-impact cardio training protocol for your next active rest day. Most endurance training protocols will have at least one day of rest built in per week, but be an overachiever and shoot for two. Remember, effectively managing fatigue by using active rest, ensures more quality training, which is preferred over quantity.

Circuit training is a great way to implement a low-impact, active rest workout. It will still get your heart rate up, but without the same insults caused by traditional cardio (3). Here is a low-impact cardio workout to get you going in a smarter, safer, more efficient active rest day:

1. Kettlebells swings 

Grip the bell with both hands, elbows straight, and exhale as you use your hips to drive the bell forward like a pendulum. Allow the bell to swing down between your legs going into a half squat before repeating the motion. Start out with 10-20 at a time, focusing on keeping your cadence uniform, and your core tight.

2. Box step-ups

Do 10 on each leg. Try a box that’s about knee high, but don’t be afraid to go higher as you get better. Don’t forget this is a low-impact cardio workout, so don’t fall off the box; lower yourself gently to the floor like you’re afraid you’ll break it if you land too hard.

3. Kettlebell squat press

Do 10, switch hands, do another 10. Try to get as low into your deep squat as you can with the kettlebell in the racked position (grab the horn of the bell, pull your elbow to your side, and your thumb towards your armpit). Forcefully standup, pressing the kettlebell overhead as you do. Remember, low impact, so no jumping!

4. Medicine ball slams 

Stand tall with a medicine ball above your head. Initiate the slam from your abs and drive the ball into the ground. Shoot for about 25.

Easier said than done

Now that you know the routine, repeat it! Your goal should be to work up to about 20 minutes of intermittent work; 30 seconds for each exercise, with a 30 second break between exercises, and a 60 second break between sets.

At almost 5 minutes per set, you’ll have time for 4 sets (or more if you’re up for it!). If you are struggling to meet the time deadlines, give yourself longer recovery between sets. Train hard, but train smart, using this low-impact cardio workout for your active rest days.

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