What is Active Recovery? How It Works and Examples
It’s a common misconception that every workout must be strenuous and physically exhausting to be effective. What many don’t realize is that your body needs time to repair itself properly between hard exercise sessions so that it can come back even stronger.
Moving at a low intensity will aid your recovery from previous exercise sessions by increasing blood flow to your muscles and tissues. This is where active recovery comes into play.
Let’s explore how you can use active recovery to get the most from your workout regimen and build a routine that prioritizes muscle recovery, reduces soreness, and promotes a healthy balance of activity.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Active recovery involves non-strenuous aerobic or other physical activity to get your body moving. It’s typically completed the day after high-intensity exercise or between workouts. Think yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates, or a nice, long walk.
After high-intensity exercise, active recovery is important to increase blood flow and aid in muscle recovery from intense physical activity. These lower-impact workouts also help reduce soreness and speed up the muscle-rebuilding process.
When you train at maximum effort, you should give your body the time it needs to recuperate so it can come back stronger next time. For example, if you complete multiple Cardio + Strength or AARMY Bootcamp classes in one week, you can follow them up with an active recovery day at the end of the week.
Active recovery workouts are an essential part of a well-rounded fitness regimen. The benefits include:
- Reducing the build-up of lactic acid and other toxins in your muscles
- Increased circulation leading to enhanced recovery
- Repairing damaged muscle tissues
- Promoting blood flow to your muscles and tissues
- Decreasing discomfort caused by delayed onset muscle soreness
- Decreasing the risk of injury when doing higher-intensity workouts
Active recovery also helps with momentum. If you’re having a difficult time keeping up a habit of exercise, incorporating active recovery days between strenuous workout days will make it easier to stick to a routine. Committing to active recovery on top of your existing workout schedule will help you prioritize your health and fitness, even on weekends and rest days.
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There are two types of workout recovery: active and passive.
By now, you know all about active recovery. This means staying physically active while you recover from high-intensity exercise with gentle movements. Passive recovery, on the other hand, requires no movement at all. Think sitting or lying down directly after a long workout or adding a rest day into your week where you avoid physical activity altogether.
Research shows that active recovery is the clear winner when it comes to the chemical and physical effects on your body. This is because:
- Active recovery workouts increase blood flow following intense exercise
- Moving keeps your heart rate higher than its usual resting rate and improves endurance
- You avoid some lactic acid buildup that can lead to muscle soreness and strain during active recovery
Tip: If you’re experiencing delayed onset muscle soreness, you can give yourself a self-myofascial release using a foam roller, tennis ball, or massage gun to reduce tension and inflammation and increase your range of motion.
Higher-intensity workouts are often thought to give us better and faster results. The truth is that you must also prioritize low-intensity workouts if you want to achieve your fitness goals.
The length of time you spend in active recovery will depend on your fitness level. Let’s break it down:
Most experts agree that the average person benefits greatly from about three days of strength training, two days of aerobic or cardio exercises, and two days of active recovery each week.
After strength training days, you should allow yourself about 48 hours to recover before another high-intensity session. In the meantime, you can focus on cardio and active recovery after and between your workouts.
Try not to think about an active recovery day as a “rest day.” Instead, add elements of active recovery into every workout you do, and select two days per week to prioritize exercises like light resistance training and low-intensity steady-state cardio. Aim for each active recovery session to last between 15 and 45 minutes.
Remember, you must add active recovery sessions to your workout plan if general health and injury reduction are your overall goals. Without post-exercise recovery techniques, over-exercising can lead to tiredness, lethargy, and other physical symptoms of stress.
The key to implementing consistent active recovery days into your routine is finding a low-intensity activity that you enjoy. Here are some examples of active recovery workouts that you can try today:
Tai Chi is a series of gentle physical exercises and stretches that are often used for stress reduction and other health benefits. As a form of “moving meditation,” Tai Chi is accessible to all fitness levels and can promote serenity through calm, flowing movements.
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If you want to stretch sore muscles, unlock your flexibility and strength, or relax and relieve stress, try a Restorative Yoga class. Restorative yoga is a restful practice that will have you holding yoga poses for longer durations of time to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and help the body rest, heal, and restore balance.
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Yoga Flow is a popular active recovery workout that focuses on the connection between breath, movement, and the mind. As you move from one pose to another in a continuous, smooth way, you’ll flow your way to greater strength and flexibility. The best part: it’s a great starting point for beginners looking to implement active recovery into their workout regimens but can be leveled up for seasoned yogis.
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Foam rolling is a self myofascial release technique that you can do easily at home. All you need is a foam roller and a bit of space to stretch out. Foam rolling can help with muscle recovery, increase blood flow, improve flexibility, and improve movement efficiency of sore muscles, and reduce pain.
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There isn’t one form of active recovery that’s better than the rest. The reality is that any form of low to moderate-intensity exercise will help your muscles recover from intense workouts and decrease the amount of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) you experience.
All forms of active recovery can contribute to your muscle-building goals, weight-loss objectives, or whatever other fitness intentions you’ve set for yourself.
In addition to the forms of low-intensity mentioned, walking, cycling, active stretching, and even foam rolling are great ways to warm your muscles without overexerting them.
After each workout, you can speed up your recovery by prioritizing sleep, drinking enough water, eating high-protein and high-carb foods, and maintaining a low-stress lifestyle. You can also consider supplements with electrolytes, glutamine, BCAAs (Branch Chain Amino Acids), and B complex to aid in recovery.
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Active recovery between exercise sets includes any movement that keeps the muscles you’re working gently active. During strength training sessions, make an effort to stretch out the muscles you’re working out instead of sitting down between sets. You can also include exercises such as bodyweight calf raises, cross-body stretches, and glute bridges between weighted reps.
If you’re doing a cardio workout like Tabata that requires you to move at a fast pace throughout the workout with short rest periods, try slowing down to a lower-intensity exercise like speed walking for one to two minutes at a time between sets.
Use active recovery to cool down after your next intense workout. Leisurely bike around the neighborhood following your cycling session, or finish your run off with a 10-minute slow jog that eventually turns into a brisk walk. Just remember that you should never be working at more than 70% of your maximum effort during active recovery so that your heart rate can gradually return to its pre-workout rhythm.
Start slowly and don’t push yourself too hard during each session. Whether you decide to take a lululemon Studio class, go for a brisk walk, or complete a self-myofascial release using a foam roller, you’ll be on the right track.
Your body will thank you for giving it the time it deserves to rest and regain strength.
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