Active Recovery Workouts: How to Optimise Your Rest Days

What is active recovery?

Active recovery or otherwise known as passive recovery is any physical activity that involves low-intensity movements. These workouts are generally used the day after a high-intensity or strenuous workout, and can also be used in a workout itself. Exercise scientists believe active recovery can be more beneficial than inactivity or resting completely.

Research has shown that active recovery can clear the blood of lactate which builds up after strenuous exercise. When you exercise, your body will use different energy systems to obtain energy for the movement. The third or last energy system is the oxidative energy system; this system kicks in once the other two systems are depleted. The oxidative system uses lactic acid as an energy source, therefore after strenuous exercise, there may be a build-up in the muscles.

Active recovery helps the muscles feel less fatigued and can aid in making you feel better when taking on your next workout. Active recovery also ensures the blood keeps flowing through the muscles, which will result in faster muscular recovery. One of the main functions of blood is to transport waste products or toxins away from the cells, therefore when you keep the muscles moving and the blood flowing, the toxins and waste products will be removed at a faster rate thus ensuring faster recovery.

The main types of active recovery:

The Cool Down

The most common type of active recovery that we all know is a "cool down" following a workout. Depending on how strenuous the exercise is, you may feel the need to sit down immediately, however, studies have shown the best way to recover is to keep moving. For example, if you have gone for a run it is recommended to continue with a short walk until your heart rate has returned to normal resting heart rate.

Off Day Recovery

The second most common is the “off day recovery” where you do a gentle or light workout the day after a strenuous workout.

Extra Recovery Step

Lastly, when you are doing high-intensity training or otherwise known as circuit training, you can also take part in active recovery by completing an extra recovery set. In the recovery set, you should ideally work at a maximum of 50% to ensure that you are not exerting yourself and you are able to bring your rate down to the recovery zone. There are many different ways in which you can use active recovery, the most important factor is to remember the workout is not a maximum effort workout, so be mindful of pushing yourself too much.

The best active recovery workouts include:

  • Swimming

    While swimming certainly gets your heart pumping, it’s relatively low-impact, making it a great recovery workout. In fact, some time in the pool can help to reduce soreness, flush out lactic acid and prevent a drop-off in performance. A 2010 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine even concluded a "swimming-based recovery session enhanced following day exercise performance." By slowly swimming laps and alternating strokes, from breaststroke to backstroke, you can help keep your muscles loose and flexible.

  • Tai Chi

    Not only great for building strength and balance, Tai Chi is also a great recovery exercise for the body and mind. The martial arts practice involves combining slow, flowing movements with breathing techniques, helping both your body and mind to recover from the impact of a strenuous workout.

  • Yoga

    Perhaps one of the most popular active recovery workouts, restorative yoga is a go-to for many professional athletes. The slower movements help to increase circulation and promote blood flow which in turn helps to repair broken-down muscle tissues, while the range of motion engages the muscles, tendons, and fascia around the joints that typically seize up after a high-intensity workout. Download our step-by-step active recovery yoga workout plan for free here.

  • Walking or jogging

    Walking is one of the best things you can do to ease yourself back into it. Walking, or even a light jog if you’re a runner, at a leisurely pace promotes blood circulation and lymphatic drainage. Getting your legs and feet moving can also help to reduce muscle stiffness and ease any soreness after a hardcore workout. Try cooling down with a 5-minute walk after an intense run to reap the benefits of this active recovery.

  • Cycling

    A great way to stretch out stiff limbs, a recovery ride should be short and sweet. By opting for an easy, flat route, a short bike ride will get blood flowing, bringing oxygen to your muscles and helping them recover faster after an intense workout or marathon cycle.

  • Stretch or myofascial release

    Also known as “foam rolling”, this sports-massage technique releases tension in the muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia after strenuous exercise, making it a great habit to get into on your rest days. Use a foam roller to target and massage the glutes, hamstrings, back and shoulders with firm pressure after any intense workout session.

As you’ll see with these activities they are all low-impact exercises that are easy on the muscles and the joints; they help stretch the sore muscles and may even increase your flexibility. Studies have also shown taking part in these active recoveries may reduce stress, inflammation, and increase your range of motion.

Of course, active recovery does not only include the above-mentioned exercises but can also involve weightlifting workouts or strength workouts — just ensure they are done at a lower intensity.

Although active recovery has many different benefits it is important to understand if you are injured or feeling any pain, consult a health care professional before taking part in any exercises.

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Anje Fourie