Medically Reviewed By | Johannah Gregg, DNP FNP-C
Many think of a “workout” as simply something to do to burn some calories, get your heart rate up, and flex your muscles — all while simultaneously and immediately gaining many benefits. Yes, deliberate physical activity invokes these things, but there’s actually a more complex and slightly counterintuitive process going on under the hood.
What we’re doing when we work out is we’re putting our various bodily systems — the muscular system, skeletal system, cardiovascular system, respiratory system — under a controlled amount of stress and strain. This minor and intentional breakdown of systems is then followed by the body intelligently building itself back up and putting things together so that they’re better than they were before.
This cyclical nature illuminates why the recovery phase is so important in the fitness process — after the depletion of the workout, it is the time our bodies truly become stronger, healthier, and more resilient.
Below, we’re exploring the idea of “active recovery” and what activities and tools may help you maximize this essential phase of your fitness journey.
What Is Active Recovery?
You need time to recover when you exert yourself during a normal, more strenuous workout. The concept of “active recovery” revolves around light to moderate activities during this time to aid your body in healing.
Most of these exercises are relaxing and peaceful to ease your body in and out of more intense states of physical stress.
Think of it like this: if you’re going fast in a car and suddenly stop short, it causes a rather unpleasant jolt for the passengers — the more natural way to stop is to slow down gradually over time, keeping everyone comfortable. This is analogous to how we should treat our bodies, helping them transition in and out of different speeds.
You may have seen soccer players jogging or conditioning on the field after a 90-minute game. This is the same idea as having full active recovery days on a smaller scale. Below we’re going to get into the different forms that active exercise recovery can take.
How Does Active Recovery Work?
So how does active workout recovery help you reach your fitness goals? The short answer is that it helps you recover faster and generally feel better while on a workout regimen.
Here are some specific benefits of active recovery for the body.
It Reduces Lactic Acid Buildup
During an intense workout, the body breaks down glucose to convert it into energy for the muscles on a cellular level. A byproduct of this process is lactic acid, which accumulates in the blood as blood lactate and causes an increase in hydrogen ions in the body. These ions can cause muscles to contract and lead to muscle fatigue.
Lactic acid is what causes soreness in the days following a workout. Low-intensity activity helps to clear out the amount of lactate in the blood, resulting in less fatigue and reduced soreness. Including in this regiment enhance hydration and magnesium rich foods, along with stretching to maintain elasticity in muscles. You’ll feel ready and more energized the next time you have to hit the dumbbells.
It Increases Blood Flow
When you keep your blood flowing throughout your body, it is easier for oxygen and other nutrients to reach tissues for repair. Toxins will also be eliminated more quickly when blood is moving, lightening the body's load during rejuvenation.
With elevated blood flow and hydration , you can speed up the recovery period, making it easier to rev your engines when needed.
It Helps Our Nervous System
Our adrenal glands produce two stress hormones during intense physical activity: adrenaline and cortisol. These substances give us the strength and focus to get us through demanding tasks.
However, while these hormones remain in our system, it is hard for our bodies to rest, relax, and repair. Active muscle recovery helps to burn off any excess adrenaline and cortisol left over in the body after a tough workout. Without stress hormones, our tissues can better recover with the help of the calming part of the nervous system.
It Helps Maintain Consistency
If you implement active recovery, you help build habits that will pay off down the road — consistently staying active does wonders for endurance and overall strength over time. When your body adapts to a routine of activity in between workouts, you will remain motivated and feel good while doing it!
It Provides Balance for Your Mind
Fitness routines aren’t always fun — for as many energizing and enjoyable experiences as they give us, there is an equal amount of hard, frustrating, and draining experiences that require a lot of mental determination.
Giving yourself fun and relaxing activities on your off days is a great way to reinvigorate your workout routine. get your mind off of things and simply enjoy being active. You’ll find it much easier to push through the hard days when you give yourself an engaging change of pace.
Different Types of Active Recovery
This article focuses mostly on how to build an active recovery workout for a rest day. Still, there are a few different ways to implement these activities with similar benefits.
1. During Interval Training
You can engage in low-intensity exercises in the middle of a more intense workout routine. For example, if you are doing HIIT (high-intensity interval training), a brisk walk or light resistance between intervals can lead to a smoother recovery.
If you’ve ever noticed an NFL player pedaling a workout bike on the sideline during a game, they are most likely practicing this form of active recovery in between being on the field.
2. A Post-Workout Cooldown
Going straight to a chair or bench after a tough workout can be very tempting. But if you resist this urge and instead remember to do some light aerobics and stretching first will enhance the longeavity of your activity tolerance into later years of life, and you will feel a lot better the next day.
A sufficient “cooldown” should be roughly 50 percent of your effort during the workout, gradually reducing it to zero over about 15 minutes. This type of active rest can help set you up for post-exercise success.
3. Rest Day Active Recovery
The main strategy with active recovery is devoting time to it during rest days. In the day or two following a hard workout, especially if you’re sore, building and sticking to an active recovery workout will help your muscles handle the stress and rebound quickly for your next full workout day.
Active vs. Passive Recovery
What if I just do nothing? The other side of recovery is “passive recovery, " which entails putting your body at complete rest. This can be a very important puzzle piece in your fitness plan if you’re injured or in any pain. Passive recovery can also be necessary if you feel physically or mentally exhausted after a workout.
Passive recovery can be very important and should be practiced when needed. However, active recovery should be your default protocol if you are feeling good during your fitness regimen.
Eight Active Recovery Ideas
Here are some activities you can do during a resting period. To build a good active recovery workout, you should pick 2-3 of these (or other low-intensity exercises you may enjoy) and do each for half an hour to an hour whenever you feel most comfortable throughout the day.
1. Walking or Jogging
Walking or jogging at a moderate, consistent pace is a great low-impact workout. A light cardio workout like this elevates your heart rate and gets your blood flowing. You don’t have to sprint a marathon to boost your cardiovascular system; walking is great at building cardiovascular endurance.
Walking, especially out in nature, is also very soothing to the adrenal glands. The fresh air and open space help them to cool off, allowing room for your repair systems to kick in. If you’re looking for something even more low-impact, you can easily swap this for a bike ride.
2. Yoga or Tai Chi
Yoga is a relaxing exercise that increases flexibility, balance, and core strength. Going through an easy yoga flow will stretch out your sore muscles and help get blood to them for faster repair.
Tai Chi is very similar — it’s a low-impact form of martial arts involving slow-flowing movements, breathing, and body control. It has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the autonomic nervous system that promotes calmness, rest, and digestion. As a bonus, it’s easy regardless of your fitness level.
3. Light Resistance Training
If you’re not feeling too sore, you can do a short weightlifting or strength training routine with drastically reduced pounds — around 20 to 30 percent of what you’d normally do. Pick five exercises that target varying body parts and do them each for a minute, with short breaks.
Going through this full-body circuit three times will get your blood flowing, supplying tissues with much-needed oxygen. And just like normal training days, don’t forget to incorporate warm-ups and cool-downs.
4. Self-Myofascial Release
This is a specific method of massage you can do on yourself that targets the connective tissues around muscles and bones. It has the potential to improve your range of motion and helps to curb DOMS (Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness). You can use the standard foam roller, but a massage gun or a lacrosse ball can work fine.
If you have access to a pool, swimming or any type of water aerobics are great things to include in your active recovery workout. The weightlessness experienced in water gives your joints a good opportunity to relax, and swimming uniquely stretches muscles compared to when you’re on land.
The water provides a bonus of slight pressure on your body. This promotes circulation in the heart and blood vessels, as well as in the muscles.
If you own a bike, going for a steady ride can be a recovery activity. You’re not training for the Tour de France, but it also shouldn’t just be a leisurely cruise.
Find a slightly elevated pace and get your heart rate up for a half hour. It’s gentle on your joints and improves circulation in the lower half of your body — perfect for after a leg day.
You can also accomplish this with workout bikes at a gym. These machines are convenient for post-workout cooldowns as well.
7. Boarding or Rollerblading
Active recovery workouts can and should be fun! Rollerblading and longboarding invoke good blood flow while at the same time keeping your brain and mind occupied.
These activities engage muscle groups that aren’t typically activated during a normal workout, so they’ll also help to avoid injuries brought on by overuse.
8. Core Activation Exercises
Few bodyweight exercises don’t engage your core in some way — so keeping this area limber and active will help you remain consistent and improve your overall performance on any fitness regimen.
Your core comprises mainly your abs, glutes, hips, and lower back. Some examples of exercises that work these muscle groups are planks, wall sits, and donkey kicks.
Active Recovery Help from Incrediwear
If you want to take your active recovery workouts to the next level and speed up your body’s natural healing process, Incrediwear has designed innovative sleeves, braces, and wraps that are just the right tool.
The fabric that makes up all of our products has semiconductors that provide better support for the body than the more traditional compression clothing. When activated by your body’s heat, the sleeves and braces release negative ions that vibrate your cells, increasing blood flow to the area.
As mentioned before, blood flow is a crucial part of the recovery process as it helps inject oxygen and nutrients around the body. The best part about the sleeves and braces is that they do not inhibit your range of motion, making them super comfortable to wear during any active recovery activity.
Getting our bodies moving makes us feel really good — emotional stressors are released, endorphins are synthesized, and oxygen floods the body. But as energizing, therapeutic, and meditative as it may be, doing intense workouts every day is something you want to avoid.
It is vital to balance exercise with adequate levels of recovery, whether active or passive recovery. If you skip this step, your body will never get the chance to repair itself, and your progress will level out and possibly result in injury.
If you are trying to build a regimen for your resting days, all of the activities mentioned in this article are great options — just go with what you find most enjoyable! If you are looking for tools to bolster your recoveries, you cannot go wrong with any Incrediwear sleeves and braces.