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15 Active Recovery Workouts For Runners: What To Do On Your Rest Day

Prepare for your next tough workout with these active recovery ideas

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Almost any time you watch kids run the timed mile in PE class and sprint through a race with their peers, they immediately flop down onto the grass the moment they are done running. 

Even though we mostly grow out of fighting that urge, there’s an undeniable natural inclination to rest as much as possible after a hard workout to conserve every last bit of energy you have.

However, as anyone who has spent some time training for a sport of working out consistently knows, fitness professionals and coaches always recommend active recovery after intense or challenging workouts rather than being completely sedentary and resting.

Active recovery is championed so much these days that it’s a fitness buzzword that even most beginners may have heard thrown around once or twice.

Yet unless you work directly with a coach or personal trainer, you might not be entirely sure what active recovery actually means and what exercises qualify as active recovery workouts.

In this guide, we will discuss active recovery workouts, how they differ from passive recovery, and the best active recovery exercises you can do to promote recovery from your intense workouts.

A person biking, which can be an active recovery workout.

What Is Active Recovery?

Active recovery refers to a low-intensity workout performed after a strenuous workout or training day to promote recovery from the hard effort.

The difference between active recovery and passive recovery is that passive recovery involves taking complete rest or being inactive (sitting, lying down, etc.), while active recovery involves doing some type of movement or physical activity.

Some examples of active recovery workouts include walking, swimming, yoga, hiking with your dog, or even just a session with a foam roller.

What Are The Different Types of Active Recovery?

There are three different types of temporal scenarios of active recovery.

#1: Cooldowns

Although active recovery workouts are usually performed later in the day after a strenuous workout or the following day, the cooldown portion of a workout can also be considered a form of immediate active recovery.

For instance, if you are a distance runner training for a 5K and your high-intensity workout involves running 12 x 400m intervals on the track at race pace, if you complete all ten reps and then grab a drink and jog slowly for 10 minutes to cool down, the 10-minute jog is a form of active recovery.

Cooldowns have been shown to promote muscle recovery and reduce fatigue.1Mika, A., Oleksy, Ł., Kielnar, R., Wodka-Natkaniec, E., Twardowska, M., Kamiński, K., & Małek, Z. (2016). Comparison of Two Different Modes of Active Recovery on Muscles Performance after Fatiguing Exercise in Mountain Canoeist and Football Players. PLoS ONE11(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164216

A person hiking across a wooden bridge.

#2: Active Recovery In Between Exercises In a Workout

You can also consider active movement between exercises during circuit training sessions as a form of active recovery.

For example, active recovery might involve walking around the gym between each strength training exercise or performing light cardio exercises like slow skipping rope rather than standing still before the next set or exercise.

#3: Active Recovery Workouts Following Vigorous Exercise Sessions

In most cases, when people discuss doing an active recovery workout, the activity will be performed in a distinct exercise session, separated by the initial strenuous workout by at least several hours.

Instead of taking a complete rest day with passive recovery, a low-intensity workout will be performed as an active recovery session.

After 24 hours or so, the benefits of doing an active recovery workout diminish significantly, so you’re mainly looking to get in the active recovery modality anywhere from immediately after the hard exercise session to the following day.

A dance class.

How Does Active Recovery Promote Recovery?

Any time you exercise, the body experiences stress. 

Microscopic damage occurs to your muscle fibers and connective tissues because of the strain and loads they were subjected to.

This damage is a normal part of becoming stronger and fitter.

The microscopic tissue damage sets off a cascade of reactions in the body, signaling blood carrying oxygen, nutrients, new cells, and proteins to circulate to the damaged muscle fibers to initiate repair.

This is largely why there can be inflammation in your muscle tissue and tendons after a hard workout.

As long as your body has adequate resources (enough protein, carbohydrates, calories, and other nutrients) and time before another vigorous workout takes place, the muscle fibers will be repaired and strengthened by laying down additional proteins to thicken the existing myofibrils (the structural units that make up your muscle fibers).

This is the process of muscle protein synthesis and repair and is ultimately how your workouts make your muscles stronger: exercise causes muscle breakdown, which then triggers muscle repair and remodeling to an even stronger state. This is also how you build muscle.

A person doing Tai Chi.

As mentioned, this recovery process will naturally occur as long as your body has the time and resources. 

Therefore, your tissues will eventually recover if you rest completely after hard exercise.

Here’s where active recovery comes in: active recovery can expedite this process and allow you to rebuild and recover faster.

Active recovery involves moving your body, with low-intensity exercise, which increases circulation to your muscles and connective tissues.

As these injured tissues receive more blood flow, they are flooded with the resources they need for the reparative process more readily than if they were working with the relatively reduced perfusion and blood flow that happens when you sit around all day by taking inactive rest.

Basically, the difference between active recovery and passive recovery is analogous to the difference between a buffer dinner and a seated plated dinner with slow service.

In this comparison, let’s equate your hunger and need for a variety of different foods to satiate your nutritional needs to the needs of the muscle, which requires a bunch of different types of nutrients, proteins, and cellular components to rebuild and repair damage from your workout.

If there’s a huge buffet table filled with all different types of foods as far as the eye can see in quantities that meet your needs, you can grab exactly what will satiate you without having to wait around.

This is akin to active recovery. 

A person doing mountain climbers on a ball.

By increasing circulation to your muscles through active recovery exercises, you have a huge influx of the resources they need to rebuild and repair damaged muscle fibers.

Moreover, when you eat at a buffet, you can just stack your plate or food waste as soon as you’re done. You don’t have to wait around for a waiter or waitress to clear your table.

Similarly, when you increase the blood flow to your muscles through active recovery, the muscles can easily offload the waste products and cellular debris built up from your workout.

This, in turn, reduces inflammation and promotes the healing of those sore muscles.

In contrast, passive recovery is like trying to feed yourself at a slow-plated dinner restaurant.

When you make your menu selection, you won’t necessarily be able to get all of the different resources you need simultaneously, and the trickle-in effect of the food (appetizer, entree, then dessert) means the entire dining process takes longer.

At the end of each stage of the meal, you also have to wait for your server to come and bus your table.

Passive recovery mirrors this slower, more stagnated process because the reduced blood flow limits the availability of resources and the flushing away of cellular debris and inflammatory markers.

In most cases, you’ll get more bang for your buck doing active recovery vs. passive recovery after a strenuous workout.

The exception would be if you are injured, sick, or feel totally depleted, in which case it is ideal to take full rest and, preferably, nap. It’s always important to listen to what the body needs.

A person swimming in a pool.

What Are The Benefits of Active Recovery?

The benefits of active rest workouts include the following:

  • Removing acidic metabolic waste products and cellular debris from your muscles
  • Helping clear blood lactate2Menzies, P., Menzies, C., McIntyre, L., Paterson, P., Wilson, J., & Kemi, O. J. (2010). Blood lactate clearance during active recovery after an intense running bout depends on the intensity of the active recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences28(9), 975–982. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2010.481721
  • Increasing circulation to muscles and connective tissues
  • Reducing muscular fatigue3Mika, A., Oleksy, Ł., Kielnar, R., Wodka-Natkaniec, E., Twardowska, M., Kamiński, K., & Małek, Z. (2016). Comparison of Two Different Modes of Active Recovery on Muscles Performance after Fatiguing Exercise in Mountain Canoeist and Football Players. PLoS ONE11(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164216
  • Reducing delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and inflammation4Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
  • Increasing flexibility and preventing muscle and joint stiffness giving you improved range of motion
  • Increasing overall activity level and metabolic rate
  • Improving exercise performance for the next hard workout5Lum, D., Landers, G., & Peeling, P. (2009). Effects of a Recovery Swim on Subsequent Running Performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine31(01), 26–30. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0029-1239498 whether interval training or a tempo run
  • Allowing you to focus on other aspects of your fitness, such as flexibility and kinesthetic awareness
  • Improving mood, mental stamina, and self-discipline 
People doing Pilates.

What Are The Best Exercises For Active Recovery?

Pretty much any type of exercise performed at a low intensity can be used on an active recovery day, but the best active recovery exercises tend to be those that are also low impact

Jumping and running are inherently very stressful on the body, so it isn’t easy to do these activities without compromising your recovery.

The workout must not trigger additional fatigue or muscle damage in order to really tick the “recovery” box of the “active recovery” definition.

When it comes to active recovery workouts that take place on a rest day rather than as a cool down from your strenuous workout, it’s usually best to choose a type of exercise that differs from what you did in the hard session.

For example, if you did a vigorous HIIT bike ride in your spinning class, try swimming or walking. If you run a 10K race, try cycling or yoga.

The variety will not only keep things fresh from a mental perspective but also use different muscle groups and movement patterns, reducing the risk of injury and overtraining and helping you become more balanced and fit overall.

A person foam rolling their back.

What Are The Best Active Recovery Sessions To Add To Your Workout Routine?

#1: Swimming
#2: Yoga
#3: Pilates
#4: Walking 
#5: Light jogging
#6: Hiking
#7: Cycling 
#8: Self-myofascial release with foam rolling
#9: Deep water running
#10: Bodyweight calisthenics or light strength training
#11: Dynamic warm-up exercises Or mobility exercises fire hydrants With resistance bands
#12: Elliptical

#13: Tai Chi
#14: Easy effort steady-state cardio 
#15: Dancing

A person on an elliptical.

Typically, when doing an active recovery workout, you want to keep your heart rate at or below 70% of your maximum heart rate, aiming to be closer to 60%.

The duration should also be relatively short, though what qualifies as “short” depends on your fitness level and regular training load.

Aim for anywhere from 30-65% of your standard workout duration.

For example, if you usually work out for an hour, your active recovery workout might be in the 20-40 minute range; less is also fine.

If the intensity is much lower, the duration can increase above and beyond your normal workout.

For example, if you usually run for 30 minutes, a slow hike for an hour the next day can still be a good active recovery exercise.

As a running coach and personal trainer myself, I always tell my runners to listen to their bodies. You’re doing it right as long as you don’t feel like you’re adding to the fatigue and burden on your body.

Going at your own pace6Mota, M. R., Dantas, R. A. E., Oliveira-Silva, I., Sales, M. M., da Costa Sotero, R., Espíndola Mota Venâncio, P., Teixeira Júnior, J., Chaves, S. N., & de Lima, F. D. (2017). Effect of self-paced active recovery and passive recovery on blood lactate removal following a 200 m freestyle swimming trial. Open Access Journal of Sports MedicineVolume 8, 155–160. https://doi.org/10.2147/oajsm.s127948 is the best route for optimizing the effectiveness of your active recovery workout.

Remember, the goal isn’t really to boost your fitness; it’s to help your body recover faster from the workout you already did so that you can hit the next hard workout in a stronger, more recovered state.

To get some more inspiration for active recovery workouts, check out this next guide:

References

  • 1
    Mika, A., Oleksy, Ł., Kielnar, R., Wodka-Natkaniec, E., Twardowska, M., Kamiński, K., & Małek, Z. (2016). Comparison of Two Different Modes of Active Recovery on Muscles Performance after Fatiguing Exercise in Mountain Canoeist and Football Players. PLoS ONE11(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164216
  • 2
    Menzies, P., Menzies, C., McIntyre, L., Paterson, P., Wilson, J., & Kemi, O. J. (2010). Blood lactate clearance during active recovery after an intense running bout depends on the intensity of the active recovery. Journal of Sports Sciences28(9), 975–982. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2010.481721
  • 3
    Mika, A., Oleksy, Ł., Kielnar, R., Wodka-Natkaniec, E., Twardowska, M., Kamiński, K., & Małek, Z. (2016). Comparison of Two Different Modes of Active Recovery on Muscles Performance after Fatiguing Exercise in Mountain Canoeist and Football Players. PLoS ONE11(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164216
  • 4
    Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology9(403). https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
  • 5
    Lum, D., Landers, G., & Peeling, P. (2009). Effects of a Recovery Swim on Subsequent Running Performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine31(01), 26–30. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-0029-1239498
  • 6
    Mota, M. R., Dantas, R. A. E., Oliveira-Silva, I., Sales, M. M., da Costa Sotero, R., Espíndola Mota Venâncio, P., Teixeira Júnior, J., Chaves, S. N., & de Lima, F. D. (2017). Effect of self-paced active recovery and passive recovery on blood lactate removal following a 200 m freestyle swimming trial. Open Access Journal of Sports MedicineVolume 8, 155–160. https://doi.org/10.2147/oajsm.s127948
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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