An important aspect of finding the elusive perfect workout is also finding the perfect recovery time between sets. But this endeavor may be more about intuition than science with a hefty dose of "it depends" thrown in.
In a past podcast life, I hosted a show called Ask the Coaches on the Endurance Planet podcast. Athletes would send in their questions and coaches Tawnee, Lucho, and I would answer them. After a few years, it became a running joke on the show to point out how often our answers were prefaced with the words “it depends.”
So much fitness advice depends on so many variables that you should be extremely leery of anyone who gives a blanket prescription of reps or sets.
And "it depends" is more than just an inside joke; it's the truth. So much fitness advice depends on so many variables that you should be extremely leery of anyone who gives a blanket prescription of reps or sets. The variables I consider (as a coach, writer, or podcaster) before I give any fitness advice include (but aren't limited to):
- Where the athlete is in their fitness journey
- How long they've been doing that particular activity
- Whether they've had injuries or illnesses
- What external factors their life contains
- Their sleep and stress levels
- Their overall fitness goals
And the list goes on.
I say this to set the stage as I begin to answer the question of how long you should recover. It depends.
Different recovery for different goals
Recently I posted a video showing how I like to use a stationary bike to aid in my recovery between higher intensity exercises (like burpees). The workout I demonstrate in the video goes like this:
After warming up with some easy cycling:
- 30 seconds of high intensity (running on the spot with high knees)
- Cycle easy again until your heart rate returns to your aerobic zone
- 30 seconds of high intensity (burpees)
- Cycle easy again until your heart rate recovers
- 30 seconds of high intensity (jumping jacks)
- Cool down with some easy cycling
In the video, I mention how I use a heart rate monitor to determine when I'm ready for the next bout of self-torture— I mean burpees.
The formula I use to determine what heart rate signals I'm ready for is "180 - your age." So for me it's 180 - 49 = 131. (I round off to 130 for ease). This is called your MAF (maximum aerobic function) heart rate and it is correlated with being in a state of optimal aerobic effort. But as scientific as that sounds, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
In this particular workout, I'm aiming to make my rest periods as short as possible to maximize my workout time so I can get on with my day. So my goal for this workout is to put in a solid effort in as little time as I can. It generally takes me 90 to 120 seconds to get back to my MAF zone. This is a great approach if general fitness is your goal but not necessarily if you're specifically trying to work on your long endurance. It’s even less effective if you're doing strength training.
Again, in this particular workout, my high-intensity efforts are only 30 seconds long, so being “barely recovered” is OK since I only have to push myself for a short amount of time. If my hard intervals were longer, I would want to be more recovered. Otherwise, I run the risk of my form falling to pieces and injuring myself out of sloppiness.
Popular work-to-rest ratios
If you search the internet, you'll find many different work-to-rest ratios given for particular workouts. There is the famous Tabata set that consists of 20 seconds of all-out work and 10 seconds of rest. There's the 1:1 ratio, like 30 seconds of work to 30 seconds of rest. Another popular one is called the 40/20, where you do 40 seconds of work and 20 seconds of rest.
As tried and true as these intervals are, it’s not hard to see how these ratios are likely based more on how cleanly they divide up a minute than they are on some scientifically derived value.
But these intervals have one thing in common, they do well to work on developing what is called your lactate threshold.
To explain this, let’s use the most intense ratio of 40/20. If you truly exercise hard for 40 seconds straight, you will hit the point when your muscles begin producing lactate as a byproduct of something called anaerobic respiration (when cells break down sugars to generate energy in the absence of oxygen). The key is that when you produce lactate faster than your body can use it, by pushing your body well into the anaerobic zone, exhaustion is imminent.
When too much lactate accumulates, your muscles lose their capacity to contract and you're forced to slow down (or more likely, stop) until your body can clear that lactate.
When too much lactate accumulates, your muscles lose their capacity to contract and you're forced to slow down (or more likely, stop) until your body can clear that lactate. But by giving the body that 20 seconds to recover, you allow the lactate to clear and you're able to do the hard intervals again and again. And this repetition actually teaches your body to flush lactate faster - and voila - you increase one important aspect of your fitness. You can run faster, pedal harder, or swim more egressively for longer and longer.
But again, just like the heart rate formula, this works remarkably well if you are focused on increasing your lactate threshold but not so much if you are focused on increasing your short-term power output.
Are you sensing a pattern?
Types of recovery
If it wasn’t getting confusing enough, let’s throw in the difference between active and passive recovery.
Active recovery (AR)
In my interval video, which I linked to above, I am using a stationary bike during my recovery intervals to do a version of active recovery. The goal of active recovery is to clear that lactate from the muscles and aid in the circulation of deoxygenated blood back to the lungs. In some studies, active recovery has even been shown to reduce how bad and how long your muscles ache after a workout.
Passive recovery (PR)
Passive recovery is exactly what it sounds like, the body stays completely at rest. The main place you might see this type of recovery is on the sidelines at a sporting event. I'm willing to bet that if hockey star Connor McDavid had a choice, he'd be skating in circles instead of recovering on that hard wooden bench. But by doing passive recovery between shifts, McDavid is able to take a shorter rest and then get back onto the ice repeatedly for the duration of the game.
Counterbalanced recovery (CR)
And finally, the third type of recovery is a combination of the previous two called counterbalanced recovery. This combo type of recovery was tested against passive and active recovery in a research study in 2020.
In the study, the types of recovery were administered between 200-meter swimming sprints like this:
- 15-minute AR
- 15-minute PR
- A combination of 5-minute AR and 10-minute PR in the CR design
The researchers concluded that a mixture of the two types of recovery was more effective in enhancing muscle reoxygenation after a 200-meter swim when compared with AR and PR, but they also concluded that “its beneficial effect on subsequent performance warrants further investigation.”
So, when we consider the best type of recovery, we find ourselves circling back to that tried-and-true answer: It depends. If the athlete’s goal is to get oxygen back into their muscles quickly, the counterbalanced design is best. But if the athlete is more focused on getting back into the pool to crush their teammates in a 200-meter race, maybe not.
How long should you recover?
If you aren’t shaking your fist at the screen or throwing your headphones into the nearest dumpster at this point, I thank you for sticking with me. All this madness is to make one point: There is no magic number.
There are some good guidelines, some clean ratios, and some interesting formulas that we can use as a starting point. But the only person who can tell you how long you should recover is you, right now, at this point in your life, and at this point in your fitness journey.
That’s right, your equation won’t just be different from your workout partner; it will be different as you get more proficient (and efficient) at an activity. It will also change as you get older. Or it could depend on how much sleep you got, how much stress you're under, or even what you had for lunch. And there is nothing bad about that. In fact, if we remain in tune enough to admit when we need a longer recovery period, we will actually maintain our fitness better, for longer, and with less chance of burnout or injury.
Let me sum it up this way, if you are Eliud Kipchoge preparing for a record-breaking marathon attempt, you will work with a coach who will measure your performance and use a combination of intuition and science to approximate your optimal recovery time so you can potentially squeeze every last drop out of your training.
But most of us don’t need a coach to determine if our workout felt like "good torture" or "bad torture." We don't need someone to tell us whether we can barely walk or comb our own hair the next day. And as long as we're enjoying ourselves and getting the results we want, then we probably chose the right recovery.