Active recovery is low-intensity activity that promotes blood flow to the muscles helping you to recover. While recovering might mean relaxing on the couch to you, it’s not necessarily the best option to bounce back from your workout. Although it sounds contradictory, being active may help your achy muscles recover from an intense workout better than resting.
High-intensity activity such as weightlifting, HIIT workouts, running or team sports can result in stiff and sore muscles or muscle fatigue the next day. Active recovery can help alleviate the soreness, and it may also improve your performance.
Muscle fatigue is caused by accumulating lactic acid in the tissue. Additionally, inorganic phosphate increasing during fatigue as creatine phosphate in the tissue is broken down is a major cause of muscle fatigue.
The stiffness you wake up with the day (or two days) after a workout is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS is the pain and stiffness that begins a day or two after a workout. Your muscles feel tender to the touch or have reduced range of motion. Other symptoms of DOMS are swelling, fatigue and short-term loss of muscle strength. It’s caused by microscopic tears in the muscle fibers. Your body responds to these tears by increasing inflammation, leading to the next day’s achiness. DOMS happens to almost everyone, from beginners to elite athletes. It strikes most often when you increase your workout intensity or try new kinds of exercise your body isn’t used to.
Active recovery workouts offer numerous benefits to your body. The goal is to mix medium-to-high-intensity training with some low-intensity active recovery days throughout the week. A 2018 study analyzing post-workout recovery techniques found that active recovery has numerous benefits, including:
Planning active recovery on a rest day is a good way to give yourself a break without sacking out on the couch.
“If the goal of your rest day is to boost recovery, then you actually have to take actions towards that, it’s not merely the inaction of not going to the gym,” said WHOOP VP of Data Science and Research Emily Capodilupo on an episode of our podcast discussing recovery.
Active recovery after a workout allows the heart rate to slowly decrease. Doing it on a rest day will elevate your heart rate but doesn’t add joint stress that comes with cardio or HIIT.
Passive recovery, on the other hand, are the days for binge watching. Taking it easy helps you bounce back on low recovery days and it helps injuries to heal. Passive recovery may be more helpful after short, repetitive high-intensity exercise, such as circuit training, but active recovery may be a better option after other types of workouts, like running, swimming or an athletic event. Additionally, active recovery is beneficial when you’re tapering for an event. Both types of recovery are useful to get your body the rest it needs.
There is more than one way to look at active recovery. It’s something to do on a rest day, between interval sets, and during cooldowns. Some light activity between workout days such as going for a walk or doing yoga during will help increase blood flow without the intensity of a workout.
Interval recovery (things like jogging between speed intervals) can help you recover faster. The American Council on Exercise found that athletes recover faster when working between 50-60% maximum heart rate than standing still or walking slowly during the recovery interval.
Cooling down after a workout means not halting immediately after a workout. A cool-down jog at 50-60% of max heart rate will allow you to gradually return to a restful state. Cool downs include dynamic stretches, jogging, walking on a treadmill, cycling and foam rolling.
The WHOOP recovery metric reflects how prepared your body is to take on strain each day. Factors can include illness, previous exercise, psychological stress, and how much sleep you got. When your recovery is high, your body is primed to take on strain. When it’s low, you may be at greater risk of injury or overtraining. These metrics can help you decide whether you can have an active or passive recovery day.
The Strain Coach helps you reach restorative strain for active recovery. Once you’ve set your goal, it shows your strain building in real time and lets you know exactly when you’ve hit the desired amount in order to prevent you from overdoing it.