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There's no question that how you spend your time working out matters. Different activities yield different results, and some get you into shape faster than others. What many of us don't realize, though, is that how you spend your time recovering from your workouts is also quite important.
If you've been wondering what to do on your off days, and how to care for your aching body when you're sore, we've got just the information for you. We tapped master trainer Valerie Ugrinow and NASM-certified personal trainer Michelle Parolini to help us best understand what active and passive recovery are, why recovery is such a big part of fitness, and the best forms of active recovery. Read on to learn everything you need to know about active recovery.
Meet the Expert
What Is Active Recovery?
Active recovery is just as it sounds: time spent recovering from exercise that isn't sedentary. "Active recovery is a low-intensity/low-impact activity used to maintain momentum in your training while giving your muscles and joints a much-needed rest and reset," says Ugrinow.
It's a smart thing to do (as opposed to remaining fully sedentary) and has many benefits. Parolini says that "active recovery is a great way to keep moving and working, but not so hard on the joints and muscles. It’s a chance to let your heart rate come down a bit from those big peaks in your workout or lubricate the joints after impact."
Benefits of Active Recovery
Active recovery has numerous benefits. Here are the top ones, according to our trainers.
- Reduces muscle soreness: "Active recovery has been shown to reduce post-workout muscle soreness by increasing blood flow to the muscles and reducing lactic acid build-up in the muscles," says Parolini.
- Speeds up recovery: By getting the lactic acid out of your muscles more quickly than if you just rested, the downtime needed between workouts can be minimized.
- Improves strength: Ugrinow tells us that the act of increasing blood flow helps to "eliminate waste which allows your muscles to repair and ultimately build more strength over time."
- Reduces your chance of injuries: By keeping your muscles and joints mobile when not working out, you can improve how they function when you do work out, which lowers your chance of injury. Ugrinow notes that active recovery is "like hitting the reset button for your body and mind without hindering progress in your training."
Active Recovery vs. Passive Recovery
Unlike active recovery, passive recovery implies that you're resting and allowing your body to heal from your workout. Both trainers note that passive recovery is best for anyone who is injured and is best served by taking time off for their body to repair. "Active recovery is taking a break from strenuous exercise by choosing activities that are lower impact and intensity while passive recovery is true rest and involves minimal movement at all," says Ugrinow. She notes that active recovery is an integral part of any training program.
Ultimately, both types of recovery are important and have their rightful place in your fitness regime. "Passive recovery is an important piece of the puzzle too, as it doesn’t require you to exert much energy and allows for a full reset," says Parolini. "Active recovery is ideal when you want to keep moving forward with your training, but give your body a chance to refresh."
Types of Active Recovery
There are several different types of active recovery. These aren't specific exercises, like the forms of active recovery are, but rather categories of various types.
- Slowing down your movement: Parolini says that when sprinting, shifting from sprinting to walking counts as active recovery. That's because you're continuing to use your muscles, instead of just coming to a full stop, which could be jarring for your body.
- Cooldowns: Any good workout has a cooldown built into it, and cooldowns are a form of active recovery. "Including a cooldown after a strenuous exercise helps to flush out lactic acid and reduce inflammation," says Ugrinow.
- Gentle activity: Spending time doing a gentler activity than you would call "a workout" is the final form of active recovery. Ugrinow says that "it is also beneficial to schedule in active rest days that include 15-60 minutes of gentle activity to get your heart rate up. Your active recovery should leave you feeling energized and ready for your next workout." Parolini adds that gentle activities on recovery days "provide for planned days of movement at less than 50 percent of max effort."
The Best Forms of Active Recovery
If you've never used a foam roller, you'll be in for a surprise when you try out this suggestion of Ugrinow's. This small and light piece of equipment has a big impact on your muscles, and you'll likely be taken aback by how much you get out of it. Foam rolling can be done along with stretching or practiced alone by rolling over your muscles in a strategic way. Be sure to follow along with a video or watch a tutorial when you first begin, to ensure that you don't injure yourself.
Though it can also be done vigorously, which would count as active recovery, rowing gently is a great choice for an active recovery exercise. Parolini says that "rowing is low impact and the intensity is controlled by the user. While rowing, our bodies will move through a full range of motion so it allows the user to stretch the muscles and open through the joints (knees, hips, and ankles)."
It doesn't always feel gentle while you're in the midst of it, but yoga is a perfect example of active recovery. "Yoga allows the user to stretch muscles and focus on mobility through the joints," says Parolini. If you haven't done much yoga, you'll want to start with a beginner's class so that you don't risk pulling any muscles—yoga can be more difficult than it looks.
There's really no bad time to go for a walk, and if you have access to one, you can always walk on a treadmill if the weather outside is poor. "Walking is a great form of active recovery and can be incorporated between intervals, used as a cooldown, or used as a low-intensity recovery day," says Parolini. As for how far to walk, or how fast, you're the best judge of that. Your goal is to elevate your heart rate and to keep it up for anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes, in order to get a good active recovery workout in.
Swimming is a top choice for active recovery for Ugrinow. This activity has zero impact because your body is supported by the water, so it's an ideal choice for runners or anyone who exercises in high-impact ways. Swimming uses nearly all of the muscles in your body, so wherever you're feeling sore it's bound to work—and subsequently send blood flowing directly to those muscles.
Ugrinow's final choice for active recovery is this low-impact machine found in gyms everywhere. An elliptical is great for anyone who wants a gentle workout in general, but it's particularly beneficial as a form of active recovery. That's because it gets your heart rate up and uses your muscles without putting any strain on them or risking injury. Ellipticals are less commonly used than other cardio equipment, such as treadmills, but they're one of the safest ways to work a wide array of muscles.
The Final Takeaway
Active recovery is a vital part of any exercise regime. It's the act of performing activities that are less strenuous than your usual workouts, but that still get your heart rate elevated. Active recovery is useful because it reduces injury risk, speeds up recovery time, and helps your muscles to heal. There are several forms of active recovery, including cooldowns, and a variety of different activities—such as swimming, yoga, and foam rolling—that fall under the umbrella of active recovery. If you've been wondering what to do on your off days from working out, and whether you should be doing anything at all, now you know that active recovery is a wonderful idea... and you have many options to try.