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The Importance of Rest and Active Recovery Days

Vision Fitness BlogWhen you’re committed to your training program, taking a rest or active recovery day can be even harder than sticking to your workouts. Figuring that more is better, many of us churn out workout after daily workout, only to be sidelined with an injury or mental fatigue that won’t let us make it off the couch. If you can’t remember the last time you took a break from your training or if you’re struggling with nagging soreness, injuries or low motivation, it’s time to build some mindful breaks into your program.

Recovering from your workouts doesn’t have to mean complete inactivity. Active recovery workouts allow you to continue physical activity at a lower level of exertion than your training workouts. The rule of thumb for these workouts is that they should leave you feeling better than when you started. Many of us find that it’s easier to stick to both a training plan and our diet if we stay active every day. Active recovery not only helps us to do that, but may also have some benefits by providing an opportunity to improve our form and increase our range of motion, without taking time away from training on more intense days.

Whether you’re using your treadmill, indoor cycle, or elliptical, your home fitness equipment can be a great way to build lower impact workouts into your training plan. Technological advances, such as virtual destination video and preprogrammed workouts can make it easy for you to take a mental break while providing just enough increased circulation to help you recover from your last tough workout. These recovery workouts might be as simple as using your home fitness equipment, while keeping an eye on your heart rate. For active recovery workouts, try using the “fat burning” setting (if your machine has one) or keeping your heart rate at 60-65% of your maximum.  While your total calorie burn will be lower than if you were working out at a higher intensity, you will give your body the chance to recover and to become more efficient, making your more intense workouts easier in the long run. You can incorporate the same approach into an outdoor run or bike ride by using a heart rate monitor and slowing your speed, or even walking every time your heart rate goes above 65%. While you may find yourself walking a lot during your first workouts, in time you will become more efficient and able to maintain your pace with lower effort.

Active recovery also gives us the opportunity to build in some cross training workouts. For runners and cyclists, lower intensity days when you are less fatigued are a great time to work on drills to improve your form. Think about keeping your exertion rate down (these workouts should feel easy!) while increasing your mental focus on maintaining perfect form. Runners might do some easy strides on a treadmill or the road; cyclists might work on increasing the pulling action of their pedal motion while releasing tension from the upper body. You can also incorporate yoga, core work, self-myofascial release (foam rolling), or light strength training for cross training that will help your body and mind recover, increasing your strength and flexibility for your next training session.

While active recovery is a great tool to keep motivation high and injury low, there are going to be days that call for complete rest. If your training schedule includes very high intensity events or if you’ve just completed an exhausting competition or season, you may benefit from one or more consecutive rest days. These days can also be used regularly to avoid injury and exhaustion and to improve adherence to your program. While your home fitness equipment makes sticking to your workouts easier, family schedules and work demands can still lead to time off from training. When you know that these conflicts are coming up, you can plan for them by incorporating a full rest day into your plan. It might make sense to look at your upcoming weekly schedule and if you know that one day is going to be unusually tight, schedule a tough workout for the day before. Rather than feeling guilty about missing your next workout, enjoy a well-earned day of rest knowing that your body is getting stronger for your next training session.

Working out during cold & flu season

I’ve only recently realized that there’s more than cold weather and busy schedules working against my exercise regime during this time of year. It’s also the cold and flu season.

Although many hardcore exercise enthusiasts will simply work through their illness, is this always the best decision? When is it safe to work out and when should you take some time off? Also, are there any ways you should modify your workouts to encourage a speedy recovery?

When to Continue

According to Dr. Edward R. Laskowski, of the Mayo Clinic, a general rule of thumb is that moderate exercise is usually safe as long as your symptoms are “above the neck.” This include symptoms that accompany the common cold, such as a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing or minor sore throat. These things don’t have to derail your exercise routine, provided you feel OK energy-wise.

In fact, a series of studies conducted at Ball State University showed that not only will a minor cold not impair your performance, but moderate exercise might actually help you recover more quickly.

Regular exercise, accompanied by a good night’s sleep, can be a powerful boost to your immune system. Not only does the act of exercising itself help white blood cells, which fight disease, travel more quickly through your body, but it also affects the hormones that control your sleep cycles. So exercise indirectly helps you sleep more deeply, allowing your immune system to repair itself more effectively.

When to Take a Break

Conversely, “below the neck symptoms” like chest congestion, a hacking cough or digestive problems shouldn’t be ignored. A fever is another symptom you shouldn’t try to exercise through. Listen to your body and give it a rest.

If you’re experiencing muscles soreness or fatigue, take the day off as well, since exercising will only worsen your symptoms. If you have any doubts, discuss your symptoms and your routine with your doctor.

Getting Back in the Game

Just because your fever has passed and you only have a slight sniffle, it doesn’t mean you should launch back into your normal routine immediately. When you’re still dealing with the minor “above the head” symptoms, keep your exercise to a moderate level even if that means lowering your regular intensity. If you normally run, you may need to jog or even walk until you are completely recovered.

You may also need to cut back on the length of your workouts. Doctor Howard LeWine, of Harvard Health Publications, warns that viral infections like the flu can weaken the heart, leaving it susceptible to damage by strenuous exercise. Stop if you feel exhausted or have difficulty breathing. Be especially careful if you start to develop tightness and coughing in your chest.

Have you struggled to maintain your workout schedule despite a cold or flu? Please share your experience with us in the comments.


How to Feel at Home in a New Gym

Workout GymDid you ever walk into a new gym and feel like a stranger in a strange land?  That’s what happens to me any time I join a new one.  I look around and feel lost. Where are the free weights located? Is there an area for stretching? What is that newfangled machine over there and how do I use it? Help!

That sort of new-gym phobia turns off many a prospective exerciser, especially those who are already hesitant about working out in public or wearing Spandex clothing that shows every bump (does Spanx design exercise wear yet?).

But do not let that initial intimidation stop you from starting an exercise program or joining a new gym. You will soon feel at home in your new surroundings – it just takes a little time, and some help from the staff.

· Take the Tour. Most gyms will give you a free tour or orientation when you join. A staff member will usually be happy to show you how the equipment works, and tell you about the classes and other amenities available. Some, including mine, even give you one free session with a personal trainer.  Of course, they’re hoping you’ll book a package with that trainer – and if you can afford it and enjoy the session, that’s not a bad idea – but you can also use that time to pick the trainer’s brain. Ask them to help you reevaluate your current exercise routine and set some new goals.

· Ask Questions. No gym wants you to use their equipment incorrectly, so they are usually willing to spend some time explaining how things work.  Don’t be afraid to ask. For example, if you’re unsure about your technique on a given machine, you can usually stop a trainer and ask him or her if you’re using it correctly. (If they’re not willing to help, this may not be the right gym for you).

· Pick Your Moment. While you’re getting the lay of the land, and if your schedule allows it, try going when the gym is least crowded. You can ask at the front desk when that is; perhaps in midafternoon, or late evening once the after-work crowd disperses. If there isn’t a line waiting to use a machine, you’ll feel more comfortable getting used to it.

· Safety in Numbers. One reliable way to increase your comfort level is to go with a friend. It’s always easier to check out a new place with a wingman or woman at your side, and as a bonus, a friend can help motivate you to stick to your workout routine.  Research has even shown that people exercising with friends produce more endorphins than those going it alone.

In a matter of weeks, you’ll be comfortable in your new gym and feel like an old pro, ready to give tips to the next newbie who comes through the doors.

Check out this article on common gym mistakes to make sure you are getting the most out of your workout. After all, if you’re going to put in the time, you want it to pay off.