Whether you’re into CrossFit, cardio, weightlifting, or any type of workout in between, there’s probably one thing you always make sure to pencil in — rest days. But crushing reps in the gym followed by a day of couch-surfing could do more harm than good when it comes to your progress, muscle strength, and endurance. What will help increase your performance are active recovery workouts. Rest assured, these exercises are nowhere near as intense as your standard sweat session, and you may even be doing them already without realizing it. With an active recovery workout, you get the mood-lifting benefits of exercising without overdoing it — preventing injury and leading to quicker gains when you’re ready to really sweat.
Here’s what an active recovery workout looks like, why it’s important, and how to start adding it into your routine.
Why You Need an Active Recovery Workout
There are three main types of active recovery workouts. During your normal, high-intensity workout, active recovery can be done in between sets instead of taking a complete rest (known as passive recovery). After your entire workout, active recovery can be completed as a cool down. And there are also active recovery workouts you can do on a “rest day.”
It might seem like overkill, but research has found that on workout days, active recovery workouts are more effective in fatigue recovery for muscle groups used in active exercises. For one study researchers evaluated 13 mountain canoeists and 12 football players during a leg workout that consisted of a warm-up, 10 one-minute runs on a treadmill, then one of three active recovery options: active legs recovery by pedaling on a cycle ergometer, active arms recovery using an arm ergometer, and passive recovery of sitting for 20 minutes. The group that was assigned to active leg recovery experienced less muscle fatigue and improved power and endurance after 20 minutes of active recovery than the passive recovery group and the active arm recovery group — which would make it easier for them to continue their workout with another set.
Active recovery can also be beneficial once your workout is complete because it helps clear blood lactate. Performing an activity at 60% to 80% of your lactic threshold (roughly 50% of your max heart rate) can clear lactic acid faster, according to a 2010 study. Conventionally, it’s been thought that high levels of blood lactate cause muscle fatigue, but this is an oversimplification. But although lactic acid doesn’t cause fatigue, it is a marker for it, and clearing lactic acid after high-intensity exercise aids in recovery, according to the study.
When it comes to active recovery workouts on rest days, there’s a benefit to your future workouts. Low-intensity exercises like walking and stretching can increase blood flow to your muscles and tissues. This can speed up recovery by circulating more oxygen throughout the body to repair those muscles and joints that are working hard.
How to Do an Active Recovery Workout to Boost Performance
Ready to move it for the sake of shaking off muscle soreness faster and building endurance? Here are some examples of how to implement active recovery into your workout routine:
If you’re doing interval training outside or on a treadmill, active recovery can be built into the workout. Depending on your fitness level, try to jog instead of walk between intervals. So, after a one-minute sprint interval, work on jogging or fast-walking for one to two minutes before the next sprint. For endurance running or other cardio, instead of stopping cold, get into the habit of doing a cooldown. The sweet spot here is six to 10 minutes of a slow jog or brisk walk to get your heart rate down, help clear lactic acid, and prevent muscle soreness the next day.
Sitting between strength training reps can make you stiff and may cause your muscles to get tired faster. This doesn’t mean you have to crank out rep after rep with no break. But instead of a passive recovery, take time to stretch the muscles you’re working. This can include exercises such as calf raises, shoulder raises, cross-body arm stretches, or glute bridges for 30 seconds before your next set. If you like props, try resistance band stretches or foam rolling. Anything that keeps the muscles you’re working gently active will increase power and endurance for your next set and beyond.
You can — and should — mostly rest on your rest days. But a little movement can go a long way. Take a 30-minute walk, try a light yoga session, or take a leisurely bike ride to keep your muscles tuned for your next workout. Even active stretching counts — the goal is to warm your muscles up without overexerting them. If you’re not one for gadgets like a heart rate monitor, gauge your effort by making sure you can carry on light conversation during your recovery activity.