Active vs Passive Recovery - Which Should You Use?

Active vs Passive Recovery - Which Should You Use?

The recovery you do after you exercise is just as important as the exercise itself. If you’ve ever wondered why sometimes you feel great after your workout and at other times it hurts to move, it’s because the type of recovery you complete affects the inflammation, soreness, and lactic acid build-up in your body, as well as your risk of injury. To understand efficient recovery, you first must know the two types - active and passive.

What Is Active and Passive Recovery?

Active recovery means staying physically active while you recover from higher intensity exercise by using gentle, non-strenuous movements. Walking between sets and gently cycling after a weights class are good examples. Passive recovery, in contrast, requires no movement at all. You simply let your body rest while you sit or lie down, for example.

Which Recovery Method Is Best?

A great deal of research has gone into examining both types of recovery and the physical and chemical effects on your body, and there is a clear winner: it’s active recovery. To best describe the magnitude of the benefits, one study looking at recovery in runners found that active recovery enabled them to run three times longer during their next run compared with those that used passive recovery. Another study examining swimmers showed that active recovery dissipated 68% of the lactate that had accumulated in their blood, and would have otherwise settled in their tissues. These results are likely to occur as: 

  • You keep getting a good amount of blood flow and lymph function after your strenuous exercise, bringing more oxygen to your tissues to keep you feeling good and avoiding the ‘fatigue’ crash
  • The increased blood flow helps reduce inflammation
  • You don’t build up as much lactic acid in your tissues, meaning that you minimise your post-workout soreness and stiffness
  • Keeping your heart rate at a higher level helps improve your endurance
  • Because you’re not focusing on going hard and fast, you get the opportunity to focus on maximising your technique.


Woman Stretching

So How Do You Use Active Recovery?

There are three primary ways to incorporate active recovery at different stages of your physical activity. The first is between sets. If you’re running in intervals or using weights at the gym, you can either completely stop between your sets (passive recovery) or stay mobile (active recovery). Continuing to walk and move your body while you prepare for your next set is how you recover actively.

The second is when you cool down immediately after your workout. When you’ve finished that run, you can either lay down on the floor and catch your breath (passive recovery) or continue to walk (active recovery).

Lastly, you can actively recover in the days after your strenuous workout. You may choose to forego any physical activity for a few days (passive recovery) or go for a gentle cycle during this time (active recovery). Ideally, we recommend active recovery during all three!

Examples Of Active Recovery

Active recovery can come in a range of forms - with the constant theme of it being lower impact and slower-paced than your original form of exercise. Unlike stretches that only last a few minutes, active recovery should last between 20 and 40 minutes, and your heart rate should remain above its resting rate. As such, your active recovery may include:
  • Walking
  • Gentle jogging
  • Cycling
  • Pilates or yoga
  • Swimming
  • Using a foam roller
  • Gentle gym sessions (less than 50% your normal weight)

What Happens When You’re Getting Pain Or Have An Injury?

If you’ve sustained an injury during your training or are starting to get pain when you exercise, you’ve got to be very mindful and careful about both your exercise and your recovery. This is to ensure that the movements you’re doing help you recover, and don’t worsen the damage.

The best way to know what you should and shouldn’t be doing to manage your pain is to book in with your physiotherapist. Here at Thrive Health, we perform comprehensive assessments to not only understand the extent of your injury, but also exactly what has caused it. When we know the cause, we know what to do to help prevent it from coming back, as well as managing your current symptoms.

We love helping our patients stay healthy and active - and reach all of their training and exercise goals! Book your appointment online with our physio team.