What Is Active Recovery and When Should You Use It in a Workout?

Woman exercising on elliptical machine at gym
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Active recovery is the engagement of low-intensity exercise after completing a heavy workout or athletic event. As paradoxical as it may seem, the best way to recover from a marathon or other sports competition is to exercise at a lower intensity rather than remaining still. The old paradigm that "muscles grow with rest" inferred that exercise and recovery were individual and distinct things. Most sports medicine experts today understand this is not the case.

As opposed to passive recovery, active recovery better addresses how your body responds to extreme physical exertion, alleviating the stress placed on muscles, joints, connective tissues while improving muscle growth and strength.

Benefits

Active recovery is beneficial to an athlete in a number of key ways:

  • It reduces the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, minimizing post-exercise stiffness and discomfort.
  • It helps alleviate fatigue and improve moods that typically crash after a heavy sporting event.
  • It promotes blood flow to the joints and muscles, counteracting inflammation.
  • It maintains the heart rate at a more steady state, improving endurance and training volumes.

According to research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, recreational climbers who engaged in active recovery experienced lower lactic acid concentrations, heart rates, and perceived exertion rates (PER) than those who didn't.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Metabolism

Lactic acid is a byproduct of carbohydrate metabolism. It is produced in the muscles when the level of physical exertion outstrips your ability to keep up aerobically. Aerobic exercise implies a level of activity in which your oxygen intake is considered ideal to burn the fuel stores in your body (namely glycogen, glucose, and fat).

By contrast, anaerobic exercise implies that you are burning fuel in excess of your oxygen intake, eventually leading to muscle exhaustion and failure.

Once you push your heart rate above 80 percent of its maximum heart rate (MHR), you move into an anaerobic state. It is then that production of lactic acid begins to intensify.

By reducing your MHR to below 80 percent, you return to an aerobic state and are able to move the lactic acids from the muscles to the bloodstream more effectively. (Stopping activity altogether simply allows the acids to pool.) Active recovery maintains the heart rate at levels more conducive to lactic acid clearance.

Broadly speaking, there are three forms of active recovery.

  1. One is used during the cool-down phase immediately following a workout.
  2. The second is incorporated into interval training itself.
  3. The third is used in the days following any competition or event that has placed your body under extreme stress.

After a Workout

Active recovery during the cool-down phase of exercise may include things such as jogging or cycling at a slower pace. It differs from a typical cool-down in that it lasts longer than a few minutes. As such, it can be considered an extension of the exercise routine itself.

The primary goal is to maintain the heart rate above the resting rate. Some of the activities used for active recovery include:

  • Light weightlifting (30 percent less than your usual weight)
  • Yoga (less vigorous forms such as hatha, yin, or slow vinyasa)
  • Cycling or stationary cycling
  • Elliptical or rowing machine
  • Swimming, aqua walking, or other aquatic activities
  • Hiking, brisk walking, or jogging

Active recovery might also include massage and stretching to improve the range of motion of joints. Self-myofascial release (SMR), using foam rollers and other tools, is an ideal way to massage inflamed and overtaxed muscles

Choice of Activity

Depending on your fitness level, active recovery may take anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes. The choice of activity often depends on the sports you engage in. For example:

  • If you a runner in training, you might engage in 30 minutes of running at 60 percent of your usual pace or 40 minutes of aqua walking.
  • If you did heavy weightlifting or engaged in contact sports, 15 minutes of SMR followed by 30 minutes of brisk walking may be more appropriate.
  • If you engaged in heavy cardio, you might spend 30 minutes doing low-resistance rowing or elliptical machines followed by 15 minutes of yin yoga.

During Interval Training

Active recovery can also be used during high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Rather than sitting between intervals, you would maintain physical activity, albeit at a lower intensity. As with the cooling-down phase, it helps mitigate the buildup of lactic acid by keeping your heart rate up.

During interval training, active recovery options may include low- to moderate-intensity exercises such as jogging, high-knee marching, deep lunges, and step touches.

After Competition

Rather than taking a day or two off following a competition or event, you can use active recovery to mitigate the sluggishness and soreness people often feel after extreme activity. This might include brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, or range of motion exercises using light weights. Aim for exercises for which your heart rate is less than 50 percent of your MHR.

Stretching and yin yoga can also be useful as they engage the muscles, tendons, and fascia around the joints that typically seize up due to post-exercise inflammation. Massage can also help.

The one thing to avoid during active recovery days is overexertion, assuming that it will either help you lose weight faster or perform better. You need to take a sensible approach and listen to your body. Signs of overtraining include persistent soreness, change in sleep habits, unrefreshing sleep, and a general feeling of malaise (unwellness).

Passive vs. Active Recovery

Despite the benefits of active recovery, you shouldn't avoid a passive recovery day if your body says that you need one. Passive recovery, or the complete cessation of physical activity, may be appropriate if you've experienced a sports injury or are at risk of one. Taking a day or two off won't hurt you and may even help prevent burnout if you have been overtraining.

On the other hand, prolonged passive recovery can set you back, often considerably.

As an athlete, a down week can result in a loss of as much as 30 percent of your typical training volume, according to research published in the Frontiers of Physiology.

A Word From Verywell

Active recovery allows an athlete to recover, both physically and psychologically, from the stresses of training while avoiding peaks and valleys in your fitness levels. It has become an integral part of most training programs, changing the conversation from "on" and "off" days to one in which exercise is a daily part of a lifestyle continuum.

Whether you are routine gymgoer or a professional-class athlete, try adding some low-intensity exercises to the end of a workout and see how it makes you feel. Start with a little at a time and gradually build up, trying different exercises to see which ones you enjoy and can sustain over the long term.

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