What is Active Recovery?
When you take part in rigorous exercise your muscles and joints are put under significant stress. So when you’ve finished your workout your body’s tissues have to begin the vital process of repair. It is in this way your muscles become stronger. That’s why, if you regularly repeat a specific activity at more or less the same intensity, your muscles no longer feel sore afterward.
All that said, there are undoubtedly better and worse ways for your body to recover from strenuous workouts. Indeed, recovery should be viewed not just as an add-on but an essential part of the exercise process as it not only gives your body time to repair and rebuild, but it also provides your brain and nervous system with a break — something that is often overlooked by many people.
So what’s the best way to recover? Well, the traditional way, now called “passive recovery,” was very simple and straightforward. Perform your exercise regime and then stop. Alternatively, after exercising you might have been encouraged to perform a small amount of passive stretching. Basically that was it!
By contrast, there is a growing body of evidence that what’s termed “active recovery” (also known as “active rest”) — involving a variety of low-impact, low-intensity movements — is a much, much better way to recover. Why? Well, in active recovery your intention is not to further raise your heart rate, nor to additionally stress or tax your muscles but rather to improve blood flow to your muscles and the rest of your body.
The rationale behind active recovery is to speed up the natural process of repair in your body. Of course, repair also occurs during passive recovery, but — and this is the crucial point — at a much slower rate. Another big advantage of performing active recovery is that there is a significant reduction in the amount of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) you experience.
This severe muscle tenderness, which tends to peak between 24 and 72 hours after exercising, is believed to occur as a result of small micro tears in the muscle tissue (1). By using active recovery, however, you can maximize blood flow to your damaged, swollen muscle tissues, providing crucial blood-borne building blocks to make the necessary repairs. That means a faster recovery, enabling you to get back to exercising sooner rather than later. And as a bonus you will be able to train harder and faster the next time you exercise.
An additional advantage of using active recovery is that the increase in blood flow flushes out the build-up of metabolites, including lactic acid (lactate), a by-product of anaerobic energy production in your muscle cells. In a groundbreaking study conducted in 1996, French researchers compared the concentration of lactic acid in two groups recovering after strenuous exercise that used either passive recovery or active recovery. They found that compared with passive recovery active recovery between bouts of intensive exercise greatly reduced the build-up of lactic acid in the blood of test subjects (2).
Since then the positive effects of active recovery when compared with passive recovery have also been observed by other investigators (3, 4).
Of course, the precise type of active recovery you choose will vary depending on your sport of choice and, in particular, which muscle groups were used more intensively in your last session. For high-intensity CrossFit athletes or weightlifters, optimum choices would most likely include low-intensity, low-impact cardiovascular effort. If you’re an endurance runner, however, your focus should be on active mobility and stretching.
To give you somewhere to start here are a few suggestions of the type and structure you should be following during your active recovery. Often, though, it’s a matter of experimenting with low-intensity exercises to see which one helps you recover the fastest.
- 1 hour yoga session
- 10K row at around 2:30/500m, or slower if you need to
- 20 x 100m swim at low intensity
- 1 hour elliptical trainer/stationary cycle
- 25 minutes Airdyne bike
As well as the low-intensity cardiovascular aspect, your active recovery day is a great opportunity to stretch and perhaps even incorporate some myofacial release techniques, such as foam rolling or receiving a professional sports massage. You can use both dynamic and static stretches, and these should be performed at the end of your low intensity cardio so you’re warmed up, enabling you to really dig deep into those sticky areas.
How Often Should You Use Active Recovery?
In an ideal world you should aim to set aside at least one day a week for a long (one hour and up) active recovery session. Not surprisingly, it makes good sense to position this long session on the day following your highest intensity training day. However, for some people this isn’t always possible, particularly if time is short.
In that case, what’s really interesting is that many of the benefits of active recovery can be obtained in a smaller time frame. If a dedicated day of recovery is not possible then your period of active recovery can be done at the end of a normal training session. In fact, in one study, as little as five minutes of active recovery at the end of a session was enough to reduce the build-up of lactic acid levels and improve significantly the subsequent performance in one group of test subjects when compared to another group following a passive recovery regime (2).
Be aware that although five minutes is the bare minimum needed for active recovery it’s much better for you to push on for at least 20 minutes.
Why Active Recovery is Better Than No Recovery
Some of us find it really difficult to take a day off from the gym or other form of training. If you fall into that category then in order to prevent overtraining — which can result in fatigue, susceptibility to injury and mood swings — you will find that a low-intensity, low-impact active recovery session is very beneficial.
An additional advantage of active recovery is that you can dedicate a whole training session to low-intensity technique work. This is particularly good for weightlifters or martial artists. For instance, if you’re a weightlifter, then rather than loading up the bar and following a conventional strength program, take one day out to make sure that your form, movement patterns and mobility are as technically perfect as possible while you simultaneously flush out metabolites and improve your recovery time.
And if you’re a karate, kung fu or mixed martial artist, then think through the movements before and while you perform them, at a lower intensity than required on a fight day. You will find that observing yourself in a full-length mirror is particularly useful to sort out minor or major glitches in technique.
What sort of intensity should your active recovery be? This will obviously vary from individual to individual and will also be determined by your overall fitness level and training frequency. If you have a heart rate monitor (which is a must if you take your training seriously) then during active recovery you should aim to be working at slightly less than 50% of your maximum heart rate.
A good estimate of your maximum heart rate is readily calculated by subtracting your current age from 220. For example, if you are 25 years old the calculation is: 220-25 = 195. So your maximum heart is likely to be around the 195bpm mark. You can then use this figure to maintain a sub-maximal heart rate to ensure you’re not pushing yourself too hard.
- “The Effects of Kinesio-taping Applied to Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness on Changes in Pain.” Bae, S., et al. 2014.
- “Effects of active recovery on plasma lactate and anaerobic power following repeated intensive exercise.” Ahmaidi, S. A. I. D., et al. 1996.
- “Effect of recovery modality on 4-hour repeated treadmill running performance and changes in physiological variables.” Coffey, V., et al. 2004.
- “Blood lactate clearance after maximal exercise depends on active recovery intensity.” Devlin, J., et al. 2014.