Active recovery is just as important as exercise itself. From increased muscle performance to decreased muscle soreness, active recovery is the science-backed way to help you feel better after your workout (not to mention maximizing your workout benefits). Here’s everything you need to know about active recovery: what it is, how to do it and why it matters.
In This Article
Active recovery generally refers to movements and exercises you do between your more challenging workouts to help your body recover better. More specifically, The American Council on Exercise says active recovery is “continued exercise at a substantially lower intensity or workload (than your original workout).” This can mean small, low-intensity movements during a HIIT workout or a full low-intensity workout like yoga on your rest day. For example, if you normally cross-train, your active recovery may be a swimming session or ten minutes of light activity on the elliptical at the gym.
Just as you might guess, active recovery involves movement, where passive recovery means no activity. Generally speaking, instead of a Netflix binge day between your training days, science says you should keep moving. However, this rule doesn’t apply if you’re injured. Injury rehabilitation is specific, and you need to be careful of overload, which can exacerbate your injury. If you are injured, full passive rest days may be what you need. Chat with your physical therapist about exactly how much activity you’re doing so they can help you decide what’s best.
Active recovery helps you feel great after a workout by stimulating biochemical processes in your body. It’s the difference between feeling acutely sore and over-tired after or between sessions vs. feeling flexible and energized.
It works by:
- Decreasing blood lactate levels
- Greater endurance performance
- Decreased muscle soreness
- Increased blood flow
- All of the above help decrease your risk of injury after and during exercise
The basic idea of active recovery is to maintain blood flow to the skeletal muscle you’ve used during your workout. This helps your body replenish the energy you’ve just burned (especially C-reactive protein and glycogen). By keeping your blood flowing to your muscles, active recovery can also clear blood lactate faster. High blood lactate levels are often blamed for muscle contractions which make you feel sore after working out. Preventing the buildup of blood lactate can make you feel fresh and ready to get back to your workout sooner.
Not only does active recovery boost muscle recovery, but it also prevents overload injuries. Overload injuries often occur because a muscle gets to the point of failure, so the force is transmitted to a tendon or muscle that’s not designed to do that same job (e.g., glute fatigue and weakness can lead to back injuries). By ensuring muscles recover better between a high-intensity workout, you’re less likely to reach that failure point earlier (bearing in mind that strength is important in this equation).
Active recovery works best when it’s specific to your workout type and intensity. In general, the most effective active recovery needs to:
- Be moderate intensity: Around 65 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate
- Use the muscle group you used during your workout
If you’re not into high-intensity workouts, don’t worry, you can still maximize your recovery with active recovery strategies. The principle applies whether you're doing a moderation workout or a HITT workout. Great options include:
- A moderate-to-hard Pilates class on your “rest day.” This enhances core strength, which can help your stabilizing muscles recover after a weight, boxing, running or dance session.
- Yoga. Choose a yoga style like Hatha, which uses flowing movements interspersed with strength and flexibility. Yin yoga, while it feels great, is more about stretching and won’t enhance your blood flow within the active recovery threshold.
- Walking and low-intensity cycling is excellent to help you recover from a cardio and leg workout.
- Swimming can help your muscles recover from weights and active workouts like boxing, dance and running.
Remember, active recovery isn’t just a technique for rest days; it’s effective for helping your muscle maintain power during high-intensity workouts. So it can mean a few light bicep curls during a heavy pump session. Or two minutes on the elliptical machine between box jumps and leg press on leg day.
Active recovery isn’t the only strategy for helping your muscles recover after a workout. What you eat can have a huge impact on your muscle recovery too.
- CBD products have been linked to supporting reduced muscle soreness. CBD may help regulate your body’s response to increased movement, so it doesn’t go haywire after a heavy workout.
- Protein and carbohydrate combinations, like chocolate milk, can help muscles rebuild after a workout.
- Hydration is important for muscle recovery. Muscles have high water content, and if you’re dehydrated they can’t work as efficiently and don’t recover well.
Bottom line: Adding active recovery to your schedule can help your muscles feel supple, stretchy and ready for your next workout sooner. And when choosing your active recovery style, consider the workout you’ve done and the muscle groups you’ve used.
Caitlin Reid is a freelance journalist with over ten years of experience. She is also a Physiotherapist with a special interest in blending the realms of evidence-based medicine with inspiring holistic health.
The American Council on Exercise - The Science of Post-Workout Recovery
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research - Active Recovery Induces Greater Endurance Adaptations When Performing Sprint Interval Training