Active recovery, first and foremost, is a fantastic tool that every athlete (amateur or pro) should have in their toolbox.
Also known as active rest, the term describes any light activity performed outside of strenuous exercise sessions that can help boost recovery and long-term performance. Active recovery is a broad term that can take many forms, which we’ll get into later on in this article.
Why is Active Recovery Important?
While (hopefully) everyone who exercises knows the wide-and-far benefits of moving one’s body and getting our heart rate up and sweat on, recovery is somewhat less commonly talked about, and some people even feel guilty taking a rest day or active recovery day. If you take away anything from this article, let it be that active rest or active recovery is so important and nothing to feel bad about; on the contrary, it will help you perform better in the long run, prevent your body’s risk for injuries, and can recharge you mentally as well. If you were to exercise strenuously with no rest days, ever, your body would eventually (in the best case) hit a plateau and not improve performance, or (in the worst case) burn out or sustain an injury that would force you to rest.
Active vs. Passive Recovery
Before we get into the hard and fast benefits of active recovery, we should clear up what makes active recovery special. This is nicely visible when comparing it to passive recovery.
Active recovery is the act of performing light activity on rest days (aka days on which you are not training or performing high-intensity exercises), while Passive Recovery describes simply resting on off-days, which could be in the form of sleeping more, laying on the couch, sitting down, or being in an overall state of ‘inactivity’. Now, many people enjoy passive recovery quite a bit and benefit from it, especially if they are experiencing significant fatigue or exhaustion beyond a normal threshold. If you have sustained a sports injury, passive recovery might be necessary for you. Certainly check with your physician in this case.
If you’re healthy and are generally feeling good on your rest days (and actually tend to find yourself being bored or craving some exercise), active recovery is likely a great choice for you.
Benefits of Active Recovery
Dialing it back after a few days of intense exercise bouts, but still remaining somewhat active, has many benefits, including:
- Better blood flow or circulation
- Less stiffness
- Decreased delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)
- Reduced muscle fatigue
- Reducing lactic acid buildup and improving metabolic waste removal
- Better long-term performance
- Reduced injury risk
- Good for mental health (less chance for burnout)
- Can increase your motivation
As you can tell, the list is pretty long (and you might even be able to add some additional personal benefits to it!), so I’d definitely suggest taking an active recovery day soon if you haven’t before or if it’s been a while.
Different Types of Active Recovery
There are a few different types of active recovery. The most common one is taking an active rest day on which you abstain from any high-intensity workouts to prevent further lactic acid buildup or chance for soreness.
However, there are two additional methods you might be interested in implementing on exercise days:
- Active recovery between exercise sets or intervals
This refers to either walking, doing some very light spinning on the elliptical, or some low-intensity bodyweight exercises during your rest periods instead of sitting down and counting the minutes until your next set. A good rule of thumb is to bring the intensity down to at least 50% of your primary efforts for best results.
- Post-Exercise Cooldowns
Cooldowns are a good way to bring the body back from its working state to a state of homeostasis (balance) and are suggested to be implemented after any exercise session.
What to do on Active Recovery days
Now to (arguably) the best part of this article: a list of some of the best ways to actively recover! Note that this mostly comes down to your personal preference and might take some experimenting.
The golden rule is simply to “take it easy”. Keep the intensity of whatever it is you choose to do low. Bring your heart rate up somewhat (zone 1) but always remain able to hold a conversation.
Loving being out in nature, walking is my personal favorite active recovery exercise. It gets the blood flowing without adding to any soreness or exhaustion, and brings you out into nature and the sun (if the weather collaborates). Walking costs nothing, is possible in the vast majority of areas, and can help improve your mental health as a bonus. It’s quite relaxing and can even reduce anxiety. If you feel like you need to exert slightly more energy, you can also do a light jog.
SMR, or self-myofascial release, is a very popular method (especially among personal trainers) to include in both active days and rest days, as applying pressure to sore or worked muscles can help ease delayed onset muscle soreness, reduce muscular knots and restore range of motion.
Do me a favor and don’t skip this section because you’re worried massages are pricey and inconvenient.
Receiving massages post-exercise has incredible effects on one’s health, both physically and mentally.
Now I hear you on the price concern, and understand you won’t want to schedule a massage on every active rest day. Massage guns are a great option here, as they are a one-time investment and provide the same great benefits without the added inconvenience that comes with driving to a massage salon or scheduling a session in advance.
Vibration and percussive therapy are very effective tools in reducing DOMS and promoting recovery. In fact, there are massage guns have many benefits.
While slightly less accessible than other options, swimming is a great activity to add to your active recovery tool belt. It’s a low-impact sport that is unlikely to cause injuries and can work as a form of steady-state cardio. Be careful not to overdo it, though, and keep it light.
Yoga is a fantastic low-intensity activity to perform on a rest day. As long as you don’t book a hot yoga class (they can be hard work!), you’ll be in for a relaxing treat that will help you dynamically stretch your body, relieve stress and anxiety, reduce inflammation in the body, promote blood flow, and aid in recovery overall.
Whether you prefer this outside or on an elliptical at the gym, lightly spinning on a bike has similar effects on recovery as swimming or walking. Being a low-impact activity and good on the joints, cycling can be great to boost circulation without being exhausting (which is exactly what we’re trying to do in an active recovery session).
If you can’t get enough of the gym (or home workouts!), a light resistance training circuit can be a nice option for your active recovery workout. The goal here, again, is to not strain your muscles further, so we’d recommend staying away from the heavy weights and either completing a bodyweight circuit or picking up light weights and performing more reps. If you feel very sore from a HIIT workout or heavy lifting session, you might not enjoy this form too much, but test out what feels good for yourself.
This is a very fun one. Especially among pro athletes, comprehensive recovery protocols are becoming more and more popular. Think about infrared saunas, cold plunges, hot baths, cryotherapy, and/or compression boot systems to boost your post-exercise recovery, flush out lactic acid buildup and metabolic waste products, and refresh your mind.
Whichever option you pick for your active recovery workouts (and feel free to change it up for some added variety), your body will thank you for giving it some much-needed TLC after a series of intense workouts. As mentioned throughout this article, pick activities you enjoy to not only physically help recovery your body, but also enjoy a mental break from strenuous exercise.