The Myth of Yoga as Recovery
When the practice is restorative and when it's just another workout
Whether you’re training for a race or your goals are more strength-oriented, taking a day of active recovery each week is smart. Doing so can enhance the effects of all the hard work you’re doing in the gym or on the road by keeping the muscles moving and the blood pumping to reduce soreness and stimulate muscle tissue repair. Yoga is often thought of as a go-to for exactly that effect. And while it can be a great way to come down off of a runner’s high, it can also be too rigorous. Here's what to consider.
When yoga is a workout:
“Yoga has been given the designation of ‘mind-body exercise,’ which is often misinterpreted as ‘gentle’ or ‘easy’ or ‘for women,’” says certified yoga instructor Janis Isaman, owner of My Body Couture. “But factually, the most common form of yoga is a flow class that was originally intended for young males in India." In its truest form, it’s more of an active strength-builder than a restorative practice. Vinyasa or flow classes (or those have the word ‘power’ in the name) are most likely not going to be easy or gentle. She also points out that athletes tend to be Type A and she often sees folks “type-A-ing” their way through yoga classes—taking the harder pose when the instructor gives options, doing every single chaturanga push-up even when their arms are about to give out—which is the opposite of what you want to do on an active recovery day. No matter what you choose for a recovery workout, your intensity is the key factor, says Shaun Logan, DPT, founder of Logan Kinei in Philadelphia. Recovery exercise shouldn’t push you to more than 30 percent of your max effort or it is no long a recovery, it's another workout. That means that you may miss out on the rebuilding that your muscles need and you may not see the training effects from your other workouts that you're hoping for.
When yoga is recovery:
Practices like yin or restorative yoga are more about slow movement and resting in poses for long periods of time, which may be more appropriate as active recovery, suggests Isaman. But even in those classes, there may be poses or positions that push your body in ways that aren’t ideal for recovery, so always ask for modifications if something doesn’t feel right. (There aren't any specific anti-recovery poses that everyone should avoid as it's individual. If your quads are very tight, even crescent lunge could be uncomfortable and therefore too much for recovery.) “Participants using yoga as a rest day need to ignore the cues to ‘go deeper’ or ‘find your edge,’” she says.
First, consider your experience with yoga. If you’re new to the practice, adding it to your training plan as a recovery workout may not be a wise move. If you have the experience with yoga and know how to both listen to your body and modify the poses as appropriate, even a flow class, taken easily, might be a great way to dial it down from your hit-it-hard weight room sessions or long runs or rides.
Then, consider your other athletic endeavors. It will differ from athlete to athlete, but if your sport puts a lot of stress on your wrists or shoulders or if your hamstrings and hip flexors are overworked, you may find that some yoga poses are too much for recovery. (That's not to say you shouldn't add it in on a "workout" day, however.) In the end, listen to your body. If yoga feels like too much, back off. Sometimes an entire “off” day (or going for a walk) is just what your hard-working muscles need.