The Sport Science Program Home Page

Want to know one of the greatest secrets to being stronger, swifter and fitter? Hint: it’s not about lifting more, running faster or adding extra workouts!

The healing and repair process is as important, if not more important, than the actual exercise or training. To raise your endurance, increase your muscle mass, develop stronger bones and even build a better brain, you need time to rest and recover. Your body will adapt faster, you’ll have fewer injuries and you’ll be healthier.

Here are my steps to getting the most out of your workouts – after your workouts

Step 1: Active Recovery

Most people have heard that it is important to “cool down” after a workout. Well, for athletes it is critical. During competition, athletes produce tremendous amounts of lactic acid because of the high intensity of the exercise. In most sports, an event is rarely won in a single race. Many events require athletes to perform heats, semi-finals and finals on their way to a possible medal. Also, in many cases athletes perform in more than one event, or may have their individual events and then also team events such as relays. Of course, the ultimate example of recovery is Michael Phelps, who swam 17 times on his way to winning eight gold medals in a single Olympics.

So, removing metabolic by-products as quickly as possible after racing or competing is important; it ensures you start the next event in a rested state. The primary role of the coaching staff during actual competition is helping you recover as quickly as possible by optimizing the “cool-downs” or “active recovery.”

Removing metabolic waste quickly has been shown to improve the speed of glycogen re-synthesis. Basically, if you recover passively by resting, then the rate of lactate removal from the muscle is extremely slow, and the mitochondria (the structure in the cell that produces energy) have to keep working to process the lactate. However, exercising at a low-to-moderate intensity speeds up the removal of metabolic waste products like lactate. And as soon as your muscle and blood lactate levels are back to baseline, your muscles can start using glucose to restock its energy stores, ensuring that when you start the next race you have a full tank of muscle fuel.

In a study conducted by Dr. Argyris Toubekis in Greece, swimmers completed a 100-metre time trial. They then either rested for 15 minutes or performed 5 minutes of light exercise at 60% of their maximum heart rates and then rested for 10 minutes. Fifteen minutes after the initial time trial, the athletes completed a second time trial. The athletes who performed the 5 minutes of active recovery swam 1.4 seconds faster than when they simply rested.

So if you have to perform multiple events in a single day, or are involved in competitions where you're required to perform on several occasions over a tournament, I suggest active recovery after each performance.

The question then becomes how to optimize the removal of waste products. This is accomplished by exercising at the highest intensity without producing lactate. This procedure ensures that the amount of blood flow circulating through the body is maximized, but with minimal anaerobic stress on the muscle. 

To exercise in this target zone, first estimate your maximum heart rate using this equation:

Maximum heart rate = 217 – ____ (0.85 x your age) = ____ beats per minute minute (b/m)

Dr. W.C. McMaster, from the University of Virginia, has determined that active recovery at 55 to 65% of maximum intensity is the most effective way to enhance the clearance of blood lactate after exercise. You can implement this intensity by taking your maximum heart rate and multiplying by 0.55 to 0.65.

Today's POWER-UP: How long should my active recovery be?

The question that I’m always asked by athletes during active recovery is “How long do I have to do this for?” The answer depends on the intensity of the exercise you just finished. My research team analyzed the lactate clearance rates of 100 athletes after races to determine how much active recovery was needed following competition. We found that, in general, it takes about 1 minute of active recovery to clear 1 mmol/L of blood lactate. So we now have the following recommendations for active recovery times after exercise:

EXERCISE TIME     ESTIMATED BLOOD-LACTATE     RECOMMENDED RECOVERY TIME

30 seconds                  6–8 mmol/L                                         6–8 minutes

1 minute                       10–16 mmol/L                                       10–16 minutes

2 minutes                     10–16 mmol/L                                       10–16 minutes

4 minutes                     8–12 mmol/L                                         8–12 minutes

8–15 minutes                6–8 mmol/L                                          6–8 minutes

30–60 minutes             4–6 mmol/L                                          10 minutes*

Strength training       6–10 mmol/L                                        15 minutes**

* Longer aerobic sessions are physiologically stressful in ways that are not always related to blood-lactate concentration. To ensure adequate clearance of all waste products, recover for 10 minutes at light intensity following any interval of cardio workout.

** Similarly, during weights sessions, the stress on muscle fibres is significant. To ensure adequate clearance of waste products, we recommend active recovery at 55 to 65% of maximum heart rate for at least 10 minutes.