How to Recover After a Hike Without Losing Strength Gains

I’ve been there, and I know we all have. We hike a really hard trail, climb the mountain we’ve spent the last year training for and then to recover, stop training. You get home and let your swollen feet recover, let the blisters heal, and stop training.

So instead of building on the gains that you got from this hike and the entire summer of training, you stop and lose most of it, so you need to start all over again next year.

The day after, your body might feel like it’s made from concrete. Moving may be the last thing you want to do, but you’re going to feel so much better after you get moving. Think about those days when you didn’t want to workout but you did anyway. How great did you feel afterward?

Right? So get off the couch, put down Instagram, turn up the music, and get moving.

If you’re injured and your doctor ordered “passive recovery,” don’t move. Listen to your doctor.

In this post, I’m going to show you how to actively recover after a long hike. If you’ve taken a group fitness class, you’ve probably heard the term “active recovery.” Active recovery means doing low-intensity exercise after a heavy workout or athletic event. It’s better for your recovery than being a couch potato.

Before you get scared, active recovery does not mean you’ll be running a marathon the day after a 20 mile hike. It means you’ll be moving your body, stretching, getting the blood flowing, and helping aid recovery and keep your gains.

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Types of Active Recovery

There are three types of active recovery.

  1. This is the cool down phase immediately after a hard workout. This could be a 5 minute run after a 60 minute workout, or a 15 minute stretching session, which you should always do before and after workouts to prevent injury and increase flexibility.

  2. This one is incorporated into interval training. Interval training involves a series of high or low intensity workouts with short rest periods in between.

  3. This is the less intense workout you do on your “off days.” In this blog post, I’ll be referring to this type of active recovery.

Benefits of Active Recovery

  1. Like all physical activities, it promotes blood flow to your joints and muscles, which helps prevent inflammation. This is HUGE when it comes to speeding up the recovery process.

  2. It helps alleviate fatigue and improve your mood. Typically after a long hike, you’re going to feel like you want to sleep for the next week. Wash the dirt and sunscreen off yourself, eat a filling and calorie-dense dinner, get to bed, and wake up the next day ready to move your body even a little.

  3. It maintains your heart rate at a more steady pace, which improves your endurance and training volume. This is an essential part of keeping up your physical fitness for hiking.

  4. It reduces the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles, which reduces post-exercise stiffness.

How to do active recovery

Your muscles love circulation! They especially need it when recovering. When you’re doing active recovery, the main goal is to move enough to get your heart rate above resting. Aim for less than 50% of your maximum heart rate. Avoid overexertion.

Overexertion doesn’t help you retain muscle strength, it hurts you and increases the chances of injuries.
The active recovery workout should be anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes.

What to do for active recovery

  1. Go on a short walk, jog or hike. It doesn’t need to be lengthy. A stroll around the block to walk your dog is a great start.

  2. Yoga (do the less vigorous forms like Hatha, Yin, or Slow Vinyasa) or pilates help get your body moving.

  3. Stretching and foam rolling. This is my personal favorite. Not only does it prevent injury, improve range of motion, helps your alignment, but it feels fantastic when you’re sore. Roll out and stretch out those stiff muscles. You don’t even need to leave your home to do this one.

  4. Go for a swim. Soak your tired body while getting it moving. Double win.

  5. Tai Chi is a low-impact form of martial arts. It’s great for building strength, balance, and total body mobility. Its slow, flowing movements make it a great active recovery workout.

  6. Mobility exercises to move your body through a full range of motion. Incorporating mobility training into your normal workouts helps to prevent injury too! Below are a few exercises to start with.

    • Walking hip openers - Your hip joint is a ball that moves in different directions. Having stretched and mobile hip joints are key contributors to balance and stability.

      • Stand up tall with feet hip-width apart.

      • Take one step forward with your right leg, plant your foot firmly on the ground, and lift your left knee to your chest.

      • While standing on one leg, make a circle with your knee, bringing it across your body and then out to the side.

      • Place your left foot on the floor and repeat on the right side.

      • Repeat 10 times, then repeat entire sequence moving your legs in the opposite direction by bringing your leg out to the side first and then in a circle across your body.

    • Thoracic spine windmills on the floor - The thoracic spine runs from the base of the neck to the area between your shoulder blades. Good mobility in the thoracic spine allows you to move your arms freely over your head and turn side to side. Poor mobility can lead to shoulder pain and problems, poor posture, and upper back pain.

      • Lie on the floor on your side.

      • Bend your knees and hips to just past 90 degrees, resting your knees beside you on the floor.

      • Straighten your bottom leg and rest your top leg on a foam roller or a towel without changing its position.

      • Extend both your arms together along the floor, straight out in front of your body. They should be stacked, palms together, at shoulder height.

      • Slowly lift your top arm and rotate it away from you, opening up your chest to the ceiling. You can rest your hand on the other side of your body, if possible.

      • Hold this position for 3 seconds and slowly bring it back to touch your other hand.

      • Repeat 5 times on each side.

    • Shoulder pass-through - Poor posture can cause many people to be tight through their chest and front of the shoulder. Warming up the shoulders will help improve your form and also prevent injury.

      • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart holding a broomstick parallel to the floor. Use an overhand grip holding the bar as wide as possible.

      • Keeping your arms straight, slowly raise the broomstick above your head. Hold your core tight to maintain good posture and balance.

      • Keep bringing the broomstick behind your head as a far as you’re able. Hold at end range for 2 seconds and return to starting position.

      • Repeat 5 times.

    • Neck circles - Neck mobility can frequently be ignored despite its importance in everyday activities. Waking up with a stiff neck and not being able to turn your head is no fun. Trust me, I’ve been there one too many times.

      • Sit or stand comfortably with your hands on your lap.

      • Tilt your head to one side until you feel a stretch. Slowly roll your head forward to bring your chin to your chest, only going as far as you can without pain.

      • Continue to roll your head to the other side until you feel a stretch along the opposite side of your neck and back to the starting side.

      • Make 3 circles, moving slowly and smoothly through the motion.

    • Low lunge with integrated push back - Get your full body moving and open up your hips and shoulders.

      • Start in a low lunge position with the right foot forward and left foot back, left knee hovering off the floor and both palms pressing into the floor (about shoulder-width apart) on the inside of the front foot.

      • Bring right foot back to meet left, send hips high, and press chest back, coming into a bent-knee downward dog.

      • Shift forward, stepping the left foot forward to the outside of the left hand, coming into a low lunge on the other side. Then step the left foot back and return to downward dog. Continue shifting forward and backward, straightening knees further each time.

      • Repeat 8 times per side.

    • Arch and curl - Open up your chest, get your back moving, and warm up your shoulders.

      • Start on all fours with shoulders stacked over wrists, knees under hips, and spine neutral. Slowly arch spine, lifting chest and tailbone while lowering bellybutton toward the ground.

      • Draw belly button toward spine to round back toward the ceiling, dropping tailbone toward the floor and curling chin in to chest.

      • Repeat 10 times.

Final thoughts

For an athlete, a down week can result in a loss of as much as 30 percent of your typical training volume, according to research published in the Frontiers of Physiology.

But regardless of the benefits of active recovery, don’t avoid a passive recovery day if your body says you need one, especially if you’re injured. A day or two won’t hurt your fitness level, and if you’ve been overtraining, it can prevent burnout.

Let active recovery be an integral part of your training routine. This prevents peaks and valleys in your fitness level and helps you recover physically and psychologically from the stress of training and hiking.

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