Subscribe to Dr. Mirkin's free FITNESS & HEALTH NEWSLETTER
Recovery Days: Rest or Easy Exercise?

Virtually all competitive athletes train by taking a hard workout on one day, feeling muscle soreness on the next, and then recovering at a reduced intensity for as many days as it takes for the soreness to go away. Then they take their next intense workout. Intense workouts cause muscle damage, as evidenced by bleeding into the muscles themselves and disruption of the fibers and Z bands that hold muscle fibers together. Significant increases in muscle strength and size come only with workouts intense enough to break down muscles. When muscles heal they become stronger and larger. The faster you move on your hard days, the faster you can move in competition. However, continuing intense exercise when muscles feel sore causes injuries and an overtraining syndrome that can takes weeks and months for recovery.

Most athletes in endurance and strength sports exercise on their recovery days and do not plan to take days off. However, they work at a markedly reduced intensity to put minimal pressure on their muscles. If you develop pain anywhere that gets worse as you continue exercising, you are supposed to stop for that day.

Active recoveries on easy days at low intensity make muscles tougher and more fibrous so the athlete's muscles can withstand harder hard days. Almost all top runners, cyclists and weight lifters do huge volumes or work, and most of it is on their less intense recovery days. The stresses of intense workouts are extreme; the recoveries take a tremendous amount of time and are done at low pressure on the muscles. Top endurance runners run more than 100 miles/week, cyclists do more than 300 miles per week and weight lifters spend hours each day in the gym.

Research data comparing active and passive recovery are scant. I am amazed at how few quality studies are available to answer this question. New training methods are developed by athletes and coaches. Then when these athletes win competitions, scientists do studies to show why the new training methods are more effective. A recent report from The University of Western Australia shows that runners recover faster by taking a relaxed swimming workout 10 hours after high intensity interval running, rather than just resting (International Journal of Sports Medicine, January 2010). However, in another study, runners recovered strength and power faster aftr a marathon by resting for five days compared to those who ran slowly (Journal of Applied Physiology, December 1984).

Active recovery should be of limited intensity that does not interfere with the healing process. German researchers showed a one-hour recovery ride is more effective than a three-hour ride for recovery from 13 days of intense bicycle training. Those who rode for 3 hours on their four recovery days had much lower maximal heart rates and maximal lactic acid blood levels, lower power output and slower 30 minute time trials, showing that they were unable to exert themselves as intensely (Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, June 2009).

What else can you do to recover faster? Athletes in intense training recover faster by getting off their feet immediately after they finish their hard workouts and not even walking until it's time for their next day's recovery workout. Eating a high-carbohydrate meal within one hour of intense workouts hastens recovery (Journal of Sports Sciences, January 2004). Adding protein to that meal hastens recovery even more (Sports Science Exchange, 87:15, 2002). Adding salt and drinking lots of fluids are also necessary for a faster recovery (Journal of Sports Sciences, January 2004). So within one hour after your intense workouts, eat fruit, vegetables, cereals and grains (for carbohydrates), seafood or corn and beans (for protein), add salt to replace what you have lost, and drink plenty of fluids.

IF YOU EXERCISE ONLY FOR FITNESS: Recent research shows that intense exercise is more effective than casual exercise in preventing cancers, heart attacks and premature death. However, you should not exercise intensely more often than every other day. The hard-easy principle applies to all exercisers, even if your hard days are far less intense than those of competitive athletes. Intense exercise can cause heart attacks in people with blocked arteries, so you should check with your doctor before you increase the intensity of your exercise program.


Reports from

Corns and calluses
Test for inflammation: CRP
Steroid supplements


Dear Dr. Mirkin: Will taking acetominophen (Tylenol) help me to race faster?

It may. Researchers at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK show that trained cyclists rode faster when they took acetominophen (10 miles in 26 minutes 15 seconds, compared to 26:45 with placebos). The acetominophen takers worked harder because they had higher power outputs and blood lactate levels and faster heart rates. There was no reported difference in perceived exertion or pain, but the only plausible explanation for the improvement is that exercise is regulated by pain perception, and increased pain tolerance can improve performance (Journal of Applied Physiology, January 2010).


Dear Dr. Mirkin: Is sea salt more healthful than regular table salt?

No. You may prefer the flavor, but sea salt, table salt, kosher salt and the various seasoning salts all affect your body exactly the same way. In addition to sodium chloride, sea salt contains traces of magnesium chloride, magnesium sulfate, calcium sulfate and iodine, but the amounts of these minerals are nutritionally insignificant. Ordinary iodized table salt is an important dietary source of iodine, so if you choose not to use it, be sure you are getting enough iodine from other sources. You need iodine for your body to be able to make thyroid hormone. Other than iodized salt, the best source is salt-water seafood. Plants can be good sources, but only if they were grown on iodine-rich soil.


Recipe of the Week:

Diana's Spice Blends

You'll find lots of recipes and helpful tips in The Good Food Book - it's FREE

June 21st, 2013
|   Share this Report!

About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
Subscribe to Dr. Mirkin's free FITNESS & HEALTH NEWSLETTER
Copyright 2019 Drmirkin | All Rights Reserved | Powered by Xindesigns