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Physical Wellness

Active Recovery: How It Can Maximize Your Workout

After an intense workout, you need to give your body time to recover. That means having a day or so of complete rest from strenuous physical activities… unless you use active recovery. If you’re not sure what active recovery is or how it can improve your workout results, read on.

What Is Active Recovery?

Active recovery involves doing light exercises that often include stretching or gentle muscle massages to recover from a tough workout or training session. Through active recovery, you work different muscle groups after more intense exercise, such as by performing activities like swimming, walking, or doing yoga.

There are three types of active recovery:

  • As cool-down exercises following a workout. If you stop moving after an intense workout, your muscles might become stiff and sore. Cooling down gradually through active recoveries, such as by walking or doing a light jog for 10 minutes, can be much more effective.
  • As an exercise between interval training sets. This is advantageous if you participate in an interval or circuit training, fit in some active recovery, and use a massage foam roller between more intense sets for improved muscular performance and endurance.
  • As recovery exercises on rest days. If you need to rest after a day of strenuous exercises, active recovery can reduce your discomfort and improve your muscle recovery results in more ways than one.

Each form of active recovery can be a potent defense against sore muscles or help you recover from overtraining, especially from HIIT. Beginners may find it to be even more useful.

Active recovery days might be more accessible after low-intensity workouts that don’t increase your heart rate. They can incorporate tools like foam rolling devices or low-impact massagers to increase your range of motion. Active recovery workouts are generally low-intensity exercises designed to prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and other side effects.

What Are the Benefits of Active Recovery for a Workout?

There are many potential benefits to active recovery that you might see if you start practicing it.

Helps Reduce Lactic Acid Buildup

According to a 2018 study, active recovery may help to reduce lactic acid buildup in the muscles. The lactic acid buildup is a natural byproduct of exercising your muscles to the point where they tear and grow, but it can be uncomfortable. In fact, lactic acid is responsible for the “burning” sensation you feel when you exercise your muscles intensely.

Through active recovery, you can minimize lactic acid buildup and spread the strain of intense exercise to your muscles more evenly. This can diminish both the discomfort you feel while working out and the discomfort you feel on your rest days (when you are more likely to feel the damage done to your muscles after intense exercise).

Supports Muscle Flexibility

Furthermore, active recovery can help to improve muscle flexibility. After difficult exercises, if you stop moving, your muscles will seize up and stop being as responsive as before. This results in stiffness, discomfort, and even joint pain.

Active recovery keeps your muscles moving and helps to minimize this potential side effect. Through active recovery, your muscles and body might feel more flexible, even if you are still sore from exercise. That’s one of the big reasons why athletes and physical therapists recommend walking or lightly jogging after an intense, high-speed running session. It prevents your legs from stiffening or cramping up.

Reduces Muscle Soreness

In addition, active recovery can reduce the muscle soreness you experience after exercising. Muscle soreness is due to lactic acid buildup and the tears (microscopic injuries) in your muscle fibers. The tears are necessary since your body fills in the gaps with new muscle proteins to build up your muscles over time.

But it’s always uncomfortable. Through active recovery, you inspire your body to produce more endorphins, which block out some of the pain and discomfort inherent in exercising, plus reduce muscle tears and soreness overall.

Gently using your muscles helps to coax them out of a stiff, uncomfortable state, plus prioritizes them for your body as you recover. Reduced muscle soreness is always a good thing, as high muscle soreness can make it difficult for you to return to the gym after a painful rest day.

Supports Blood Flow

Active recovery increases blood flow to the areas that you move. As you move your muscles through light exercise, those muscles require nutrient-rich blood to function properly. By performing active recovery and bringing more blood to those muscles, they’ll recover more quickly and experience ancillary benefits.

As mentioned above, increased blood flow also minimizes the chances of muscle stiffness or soreness, so it helps reduce the discomfort and pain associated with resting after exercise.

Provides Mental Benefits

Active recovery can even offer mental health benefits. For many folks, it’s tough to stick with a strenuous exercise routine because of the discomfort accompanying exercise and rest days. Practicing active recovery will minimize that discomfort and make sticking to your exercise routine much easier.

On top of that, adhering to rest day recommendations is difficult because it feels like not working out for many people. When you use active recovery instead of passive recovery, it can still feel like you are sticking to your exercise routine, keeping you “on the path” to better health. In a roundabout way, active recovery can help you maintain your exercise routine instead of stopping and starting over and over.

Is Active Recovery or Passive Recovery Better?

Passive recovery is the opposite of active recovery. It involves resting after strenuous physical activities. For example, you might lift weights heavily on one day, then not go to the gym at all on the next day in order to give your body enough time to rebuild muscle fibers and recover.

Depending on the person and the type of exercise they engage in, active recovery or passive recovery might be ideal. Neither is necessarily better than the other. Passive recovery, for example, might be better for the rest days after very difficult exercises that result in a lot of muscle tearing.

In contrast, active recovery could be ideal for resting after exercises that may result in muscle soreness or stiffness. For instance, runners training for a marathon should engage in active recovery in order to accelerate muscle recovery and minimize muscle soreness and stiffness.

If you’re new to exercising in general, try both active recovery and passive recovery to see which works best for you. Generally, passive recovery is better if you engage in high-intensity, short-duration exercise with repetitive motions. Active recovery might be better if you vary your workouts all the time and if your exercises are more about building up endurance as opposed to building new muscle fibers.

Summary

In the end, active recovery can be just as effective – if not more – than passive recovery. It all depends on your workout goals and the routine you are committed to. Try engaging in light active recovery the next time you finish a workout to see how it agrees with your body.

Whether active recovery is right for you or not, there are other ways to improve your workout recovery results across the board. Check out 1AND1’s guides and resources today.

Sources:

An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis – PMC | NCBI

Blood lactate clearance during active recovery after an intense running bout depends on the intensity of the active recovery | TandFOnline

Effect of self-paced active recovery and passive recovery on blood lactate removal following a 200 m freestyle swimming trial – PMC | NCBI

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