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 article, we will discuss what active recovery workouts are, how active recovery is different from passive recovery, and the best active recovery exercises you can do to promote recovery from your hard workouts.
We will cover:
- What Is Active Recovery?
- Types of Active Recovery
- How Does Active Recovery Promote Recovery?
- Benefits Of Active Recovery
- 15 Active Recovery Workouts Ideas for Runners and Other Athletes
Let’s get started!
What Is Active Recovery?
Active recovery refers to a low-intensity workout that you perform after a strenuous workout 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.
Types of Active Recovery
There are three different types of temporal scenarios of active recovery.
Although active recovery workouts are usually performed later in the day after a strenuous workout or the following day, you can also think of the cooldown portion of a workout as a form of immediate active recovery.
For instance, if you are a distance runner training for a 5K and your workout involves running 12 x 400m intervals on the track at race pace, if you complete all 10 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 recovery and reduce fatigue.
Active Recovery In Between Exercises In a Workout
You can also consider active movement between exercises while circuit training as a form of active recovery.
For example, active recovery might involve walking around the gym in between each strength training exercise or performing light exercises like crunches or slow skipping rope rather than standing still before the next set or exercise.
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 instead.
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.
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 the process 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 muscles 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, which are 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.
As mentioned, as long as your body has the time and resources, this recovery process will naturally occur.
Therefore, if you rest completely after hard exercise, your tissues will eventually recover.
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, 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 in a more readily-available manner than if they’re 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.
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 your 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 that have built up from your workout.
This, in turn, reduces inflammation and promotes healing.
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 dining entire process takes longer.
At the end of each stage in the meal, you also have to sit around 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.
Benefits of Active Recovery
Benefits of active recovery workouts include the following:
- Removing acidic metabolic waste products and cellular debris from your muscles
- Helping clear lactate from your blood
- Increasing circulation to muscles and connective tissues
- Increasing flexibility and preventing muscle and joint stiffness
- Increasing overall activity level and metabolic rate
- Allowing you to focus on other aspects of your fitness, such as flexibility and kinesthetic awareness
- Improving mood, mental stamina, and self-discipline
15 Active Recovery Workouts Ideas for Runners and Other Athletes
Pretty much any type of exercise performed at a low intensity can be used for an active recovery workout, 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’s difficult to do these activities without compromising your recovery.
In order to really tick the “recovery” box side of the “active recovery” definition, the workout needs not trigger additional fatigue or muscle damage.
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 ride on your spin bike, try swimming or taking a walk. If you run a 10k race, try cycling or yoga.
The variety will not only keep things fresh from a mental perspective, but it will also use different muscles and movement patterns, reducing the risk of injury and help you become more balanced and fit overall.
Here are 15 of the best active recovery exercises and activities:
#5: Light Jogging
#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 Like Inchworms and Fire Hydrants
#12: Elliptical Machine
#13: Tai Chi
#14: Easy Effort Steady-State Cardio
Typically, when you are 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 also be increased above and beyond your normal workout.
For example, if you usually run for 30 minutes, a slow hike the next day for an hour can still be a good active recovery exercise.
Listen to your body. As long as you don’t feel like you’re adding to the fatigue and burden on your body, you’re doing it right.
Going at your own pace 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.
Here are some more examples of low-impact cardio to take a look at as an active recovery workout.