Active recovery is an alternative method to a traditional rest day. This guide explains the different techniques, how to include them within your training schedule and research-based evidence on how these methods can benefit both your recovery and your performance.
Training optimally is one thing. But not looking after your body and using the correct recovery protocols will negatively affect your performance. Active recovery and knowing how to navigate rest days will give you the best chance of avoiding injury and maintaining consistency.
Table of Contents
What Is Active Recovery?
Active recovery is a deliberate and strategic approach to recuperation and rehabilitation that involves engaging in low-intensity physical activities and movements following strenuous exercise or injury.
This practice is designed to promote faster healing, reduce muscle soreness, enhance flexibility, and restore overall physical well-being. Unlike complete rest, active recovery encourages gentle, controlled movements such as stretching, light aerobic exercises, or yoga to increase blood circulation, clear metabolic waste products, and maintain joint mobility.
Active recovery plays a crucial role in optimizing athletic performance and preventing injuries by striking a balance between rest and movement in the recovery process.
Whether you’re an athlete looking to bounce back from an intense workout or an individual recovering from an injury, incorporating active recovery into your routine can be a valuable tool for achieving and maintaining peak physical condition.
Benefits Of Active Recovery
Active recovery is an alternative, more practical and productive method compared to traditional rest days. These different methods can be applied to improve the rate of recovery and improve performance in between training sessions.
While the primary purpose of active recovery is to allow the body to recover and repair, it also offers several benefits:
- Enhanced muscle recovery
- Improved circulation
- Injury prevention
- Mental relaxation & stress recovery
- Long-term performance improvement
Remember, the intensity and duration of active recovery should be significantly lower than your regular training sessions. The specific activities you choose for active recovery may vary based on your preferences and fitness level. It’s essential to listen to your body and give yourself adequate rest. In the following sections, we will look at each of these benefits in more detail.
Enhanced Muscle Recovery
Active recovery plays a crucial role in enhancing muscle recovery after intense exercise. By engaging in low-intensity activities, several benefits are achieved. Firstly, active recovery promotes increased blood flow to the muscles, facilitating the delivery of oxygen and nutrients necessary for repair and recovery. Additionally, it aids in the removal of metabolic waste products, such as lactic acid, reducing muscle soreness and promoting faster recovery.
Furthermore, active recovery helps to maintain an elevated muscle temperature, which enhances enzymatic activity and metabolic processes essential for muscle repair. It also assists in the replenishment of glycogen stores, crucial for muscle energy and recovery. Through gentle exercises and stretching, active recovery reduces muscle tension and stiffness, enhancing overall flexibility and range of motion.
Aside from the physiological benefits, active recovery provides a mental break from intense training, leading to relaxation and stress reduction. By reducing stress hormones in the body, such as cortisol, active recovery creates a favorable environment for muscle repair and recovery.
Incorporating active recovery into your training routine allows for optimized muscle recovery, reduced risk of injury, and improved overall performance.
Active recovery improves circulation by promoting vasodilation, which expands and dilates blood vessels. This expansion allows for a greater volume of blood to flow through the vessels, ensuring improved circulation throughout the body, including the muscles. As a result, oxygen and essential nutrients are delivered more efficiently to the muscles, aiding in their recovery.
Engaging in low-intensity exercises during active recovery stimulates the heart, leading to increased cardiac output. This means that the heart pumps blood more effectively, resulting in a higher volume of blood being circulated. The improved cardiac output contributes to enhanced overall circulation, ensuring a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.
Furthermore, active recovery helps remove metabolic waste products from the muscles. By increasing blood flow, it facilitates the clearance of waste, such as lactic acid, which can accumulate during intense exercise. Clearing these waste products promotes faster recovery and reduces muscle soreness.
Improved circulation during active recovery also enhances nutrient uptake. With better blood flow, nutrients such as amino acids, glucose, and fatty acids are more readily absorbed by the muscles. This supports their repair and replenishment, aiding in the recovery process.
In summary, active recovery exercises promote vasodilation, increase cardiac output, clear metabolic waste, and enhance nutrient uptake, all of which contribute to improved circulation. This, in turn, supports muscle recovery and overall physical well-being.
Active recovery plays a significant role in supporting injury recovery through various mechanisms. Firstly, it promotes increased blood flow to the injured area, delivering essential nutrients, oxygen, and immune cells necessary for healing. This improved circulation helps remove metabolic waste and reduce inflammation, contributing to a faster recovery process.
Additionally, active recovery exercises stimulate collagen production, a vital protein involved in tissue repair and remodeling. By engaging in low-intensity exercises, new collagen fibers are formed, supporting the healing of damaged tissues such as muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
Furthermore, active recovery exercises help maintain joint mobility and flexibility, preventing stiffness and limitations in range of motion. By keeping the joints mobile, the risk of developing secondary issues or compensatory movement patterns is minimized.
From a psychological perspective, active recovery provides a positive outlet during the recovery period. It allows individuals to stay engaged in physical activity, boosting mood, reducing stress, and maintaining a sense of progress despite the injury setback.
Lastly, active recovery aids in preventing muscle atrophy, which is a common concern during injury recovery. By engaging the muscles in a controlled manner without causing further damage, active recovery exercises help minimize muscle loss and maintain strength and function.
Mental Relaxation And Stress Reduction
Active recovery plays a significant role in promoting mental relaxation and reducing stress. Engaging in low-intensity exercises during active recovery provides a valuable opportunity to unwind and shift the focus away from intense training or workout routines. This shift in focus allows the mind to relax and release accumulated stress.
Participating in physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins, which are natural mood-boosting chemicals in the brain. These endorphins help improve mood, increase feelings of well-being, and reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety.
Active recovery serves as a form of active rest, providing a mental break from the pressures and demands of intense training. This break allows individuals to recharge mentally, promoting a sense of relaxation, mental clarity, and rejuvenation.
Furthermore, active recovery exercises often involve gentle movements and stretching, which can help release muscle tension and promote a sense of physical and mental relaxation. These exercises encourage deep breathing and can activate the body’s relaxation response, leading to a decrease in stress hormones such as cortisol.
By incorporating active recovery into your routine, you create a balanced approach to physical activity and self-care. It not only supports physical recovery but also fosters mental well-being, allowing you to better manage stress, improve overall relaxation, and maintain a positive mindset.
Long-Term Performance Improvement
What Are The Different Types Of Active Recovery?
When undertaking active recovery, your main aim is to perform productive exercises that will benefit recovery without negatively impacting your training days. With this in mind, you can perform numerous types of recovery protocols.
Bare in mind that you want to keep any additional training to a level that will not interfere with your exercise regime, so some common sense is required.
Here are some of the most common forms of Active Recovery:
- Low-intensity exercise
- Take some time to practise your form
- Hot and cold therapy
- Work on your mobility & flexibility
- Different forms of massage
Let’s take a look at these different forms of active recovery in more detail.
Low Intensity Exercise
There are various forms of low-intensity exercise that you could consider, that will not affect your training if managed properly:
- Long walks (Alone or with friends and family)
- Short run (Depending on fitness level)
- Go for a bike ride
- Train your abs
- Play non-competitive sports (Shoot some hoops, kick a ball around, play racket sports with friends or family)
- Learn A Martial Art
- Yoga Or Pilates
Related Article – All The Benefits Of Walking Outdoors
What might be a low-intensity exercise for one person, might be high intensity for another. Therefore it is important to take into account your fitness level. If you are a beginner then some or all of these types of exercises may feel quite strenuous.
The best way to consider what type of active recovery to perform is to do anything that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat a little.
Avoid strenuous exercise that demands heavy breathing or feelings of exhaustion during or post workout.
Take Time To Practise Your Form
On days when you are actively recovering, you are still looking to try and improve without doing anything too strenuous. Another excellent way to do this is by working on your form. If you are insistent on going to the gym (there are worse addictions), then spend some time working on your form with lifts performed on the barbell.
There is no need to add any weight to the bar!
You could also spend some time learning a few new alternative movements and exercises to implement into your training. Practising your form can be especially useful for compound movements such as squats, deadlifts and bench press movements. But it can also be useful to perform some unilateral exercises to make sure your body is equally strong on both sides.
Some examples of unilateral exercises include:
- Bulgarian split squat
- Unilateral leg press
- Lunge variations
- Single-arm dumbbell row
- Single-arm dumbbell bench press
These types of exercises will allow you to place emphasis on one side of the body. Therefore able to recognise any deficiencies in either side of the body in comparison to the other side.
Practising proper form can help prevent injuries, improve muscle activation, and increase the effectiveness of your workouts, ultimately helping you reach your fitness goals more efficiently and safely.
Hot And Cold Therapy
Both hot and cold therapy have similar benefits on the effect of recovery, in a sense of promotion of blood flow and relaxation. The choice really is an individual one. By using hot or cold therapy techniques not only will you be improving your body’s recovery and overall health, but it also acts as a therapeutic experience for your mind too.
Whether you prefer the relaxation of a warm sauna or the uncomfortable and testing nature of cold therapy, there are options available for each type of person.
Both hot and cold therapy are two effective methods for treating pain and promoting recovery from various injuries and conditions.
What Is Hot Therapy (Thermotherapy)?
Hot therapy, also known as thermotherapy, can relieve pain and muscle tension, increase blood flow and flexibility, reduce stiffness and soreness, and calm overactive nerves.
Different Types Of Hot Therapy
The different types of hot therapy include:
- Hot water bottles – Hot water bottles can be filled with warm water and placed on the affected area to provide localized heat therapy.
- Heating pads – Heating pads can be used to apply heat to a larger area and are available in electric and microwaveable versions.
- Hot towels – Hot towels can be used to apply moist heat to the affected area, which can help increase blood flow and promote relaxation.
- Warm baths – Warm baths can help reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation. Adding Epsom salt or essential oils to the bath can enhance the therapeutic effects.
- Hot showers – Hot showers can help reduce muscle tension and promote relaxation.
- Warm compresses – Warm compresses can be used to apply heat to a specific area and are often used to relieve menstrual cramps or joint pain.
- Paraffin wax treatment – Paraffin wax treatment involves dipping the affected area in warm paraffin wax, which can help relieve pain and stiffness in the joints.
- Infrared therapy – Infrared therapy uses infrared radiation to penetrate deep into the tissues, promoting blood flow and reducing pain and inflammation.
It is important to note that hot therapy should not be used for acute injuries or in areas of the body with impaired sensation or circulation.
What Is Cold Therapy (Cryotherapy)?
On the other hand, cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, can reduce swelling and inflammation, numb pain, slow down cellular metabolism, and reduce muscle spasms.
This type of therapy has become increasingly popular for its potential benefits on both the mind and body.
Different Types Of Cold Therapy
The different types of cold therapy include:
- Ice packs – A common and convenient way to apply cold therapy. They can be used on various parts of the body, such as joints, muscles, and injuries.
- Cold water immersion – Submerging the body or affected area in cold water for a certain amount of time. This method is often used by athletes to speed up recovery after exercise.
- Cold gel packs – Similar to ice packs, but instead they contain a gel that stays cold for longer periods. They are often used for injuries and post-surgical recovery.
- Ice massage – Using a frozen object, such as a paper cup filled with water, to massage the affected area. This method is often used to target smaller areas, such as the neck or back.
- Cryotherapy chambers Large, enclosed chambers that use liquid nitrogen to lower the body’s temperature. This method is often used to treat conditions such as chronic pain and inflammation.
- Cold compression therapy – The use of a compression wrap or sleeve that applies cold therapy and compression to the affected area. This method is often used for injuries and post-surgical recovery.
- Cold air therapy – Exposing the affected area to cold air for a certain amount of time. This method is often used to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.
Work On Your Mobility & Flexibility
Time away from intense training is a great opportunity to work on both mobility & flexibility. Over time, exercise can cause niggles and injuries that can lead to bigger problems down the line. Performing mobility and flexibility is usually done at a low intensity and is not too strenuous on already aching or sore muscles. It will also help to resolve and reduce the risk of further injury or pain occurrence. Mobility and flexibility can be improved at home or in the gym and can be undertaken just by using bodyweight.
We recommend The Anatomy Of Stretching by Brad Walker for educating yourself on how to stretch every single major muscle most effectively. Within this book, there are also recommendations for injury rehabilitation and sports-specific stretching for almost any sport.
Below is also a video of a 10-minute follow-along mobility routine from Dr. Aaron Horschig from Squat University that you can implement into your own routine.
Foam rolling is a self-myofascial release (SMR) technique. It can help relieve muscle tightness, soreness, and inflammation, and increase your joint range of motion.1
Foam rolling is effectively like a self-massaging tool, that mainly targets the lower body and back. Foam rollers are inexpensive pieces of equipment, but can vary in price depending on their quality. Don’t be fooled to pay a premium though, most foam rollers will do the same job and you will likely pay more for a brand or a design.
An article from Physio.co.uk that defines massage states that “A massage aims to improve recovery to help reduce pain by relieving muscle tightness and tension. Muscle tightness and tension is relieved through an increase in tissue elasticity. An increase in tissue elasticity occurs as muscle temperature increases due to an increase in blood flow.”
Massage can play an important role in active recovery, helping individuals recover faster and more effectively after physical activity. By reducing muscle soreness and pain, improving circulation, enhancing range of motion, boosting the immune system, and relieving stress and anxiety, massage can support the body’s natural recovery process.
Massage therapy can help to break down scar tissue and reduce muscle stiffness, increase blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, improve flexibility and range of motion, stimulate the immune system, and promote relaxation, respectively. By integrating massage into an active recovery program, individuals can enhance their overall health and wellness, reduce the risk of injury, and improve their physical performance for future activities.
Whilst the actual physical benefits are debated by researchers and scientists, there is enough research to suggest that massage can improve your mental health and sense of wellbeing. One study shows that post-massage levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) were reduced by 31%.
Make Rest Days Active Recovery Days
Removing the word ‘rest’ and replacing it with ‘active recovery’ may seem daunting. You might instantly think, well when am I ever going to get a break? Relax. Active recovery can actually be very relaxing.
The point is, that on the days that you do not train with any real intensity you do not become a couch potato. Rest is vital for recovery, so spend some time guilt-free doing nothing if you want to. But, not ALL DAY.
Just because you are not training, this should not deter you from being active at all.
Active recovery may only take up a short time from your day. It will also make you feel good and assist your recovery process more significantly than sitting around doing nothing all day will.
Try to get into the mindset that active recovery days are more beneficial than passive rest days.
How To Implement Active Recovery Into Your Routine
Every individual works to a unique schedule and has different needs so every person requires a different approach. Active recovery can take place every single day. Or it may take place on the same day as training days, provided you schedule things appropriately. But, you should be taking at LEAST one day where you are not training to an excessive level. It is important to find a balance between intense training and doing absolutely nothing.
The Different Active Recovery Intensity Levels And How To Implement Them
It is important to understand that there are different levels to active recovery. For example, going for a long walk and spending some time in a sauna have different levels of intensity. So you should choose your type of active recovery depending on how often you train.
Another example would be that, if you train with intensity 5-6 times per week, then your day(s) off should be a combination of both active recovery and some passive recovery. This would probably consist of some foam rolling and mobility/flexibility alongside some passive rest on those non-training days.
If you are training 3-4 times per week, then some of those remaining days can be used to do more physical activities such as walking, playing sports or doing some yoga.
Always bear in mind that at least one day should be spent with minimal physical activity and emphasis placed on recovery to avoid burnout.
Should You Perform Active Recovery On Training Days?
You absolutely can and should develop good recovery habits. You could work on mobility and flexibility every day if you are a trained athlete. Foam rolling can be done every day. Taking a sauna, or cold shower can be done every day. There are levels to active recovery just as there are with training. It all depends on your level of fitness.
The key message is to balance everything out. Training a heavy leg session and then going on a long walk the day after is not a great idea. That time would be spent better doing something else. Essentially, some common sense is required.
How Much Should You Eat On Active Recovery Days?
The first thing you should know is how many calories you should be consuming each day for your desired goals. Whether that is muscle gain or fat loss, you should have a rough idea of how many calories you should be consuming each day.
It is vital that you include your activity level and considers how often you train for an accurate representation of required calories.
If you do not already know your required calories, you can use this calorie calculator to figure them out.
Everybody’s hormones react differently to days when they are not as physically active. Some people feel more hungry, others feel like they do not need to eat as much.
For hardcore trainers, consider increasing the number of carbs you consume on rest days to replenish glycogen stores more quickly. But keep the calories roughly the same.
For more recreational trainers, (less than 5x per week) look at reducing the number of calories you are consuming on rest days by around 5-10% to compensate for the lack of exercise.
Importantly, you should always keep your protein consumption at a substantial level.
Current evidence indicates intakes in the range of at least 1.2 to 1.6 g/(kg·day) of high-quality protein are a more ideal target for achieving optimal health outcomes in adults.2
Summary & Recommendations
Active recovery is an effective and efficient way to help your body heal and recover from intense physical activity. By engaging in low-impact exercises and movements that increase blood flow, decrease inflammation, and promote muscle recovery, you can speed up the healing process and reduce the risk of injury.
This ultimate guide to active recovery has covered a variety of topics, including the benefits of active recovery, the different types of active recovery exercises, and tips for incorporating active recovery into your workout routine. By following the advice and suggestions provided in this guide, you can optimize your recovery time and get back to training stronger and healthier than ever before.
- Phillips SM, Chevalier S, Leidy HJ. Protein “requirements” beyond the RDA: implications for optimizing health. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 May