What to Know About Active Recovery Workouts

Whether you're a serious athlete or an occasional exerciser, you've probably felt the pain of muscle soreness after a hard workout. As long as you are just sore and not injured, you may feel better faster with an active recovery workout vs. passive recovery (just resting your body).

Active recovery workouts don’t need to take up too much of your time. They also don't need to be hard — they shouldn’t be — and may include low-intensity exercise, yoga, swimming, or foam rolling.

Why You Get Sore After Exercise

Muscles grow and get stronger when you work them hard enough to cause tiny tears in the muscle tissue. It's a natural process, but it can still cause mild discomfort. 

A different soreness happens when you try a new exercise or a new movement. It usually occurs hours or even a day or two later. Called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS, this can involve actual damage to muscles. To avoid this type of pain, experts recommend that when you try an unfamiliar sport or activity, you cut the duration by one-third. DOMS can also happen when you perform a familiar activity but you go extra hard.

Experts once thought that DOMS was due to lactic acid buildup in muscles, but now recognize that's not actually true. While the body forms lactic acid when it calls on stored energy, that excess lactic acid disappears rapidly when the period of exertion ends. It doesn't cause soreness that can persist days later.

Why Active Recovery Workouts Help Muscle Soreness

When you have any type of muscle pain after exercising, you have two options: passive recovery or active recovery. Passive recovery is resting the body. This type of recovery is good for strains and other injuries. For other post-exercise aches and pains, though, experts recommend active recovery, which can be almost any type of light exercise.

Active recovery works because it increases blood flow to the muscles and joints. This improved blood supply takes away toxins and brings in fresh nutrients for healing.

Active recovery workouts should be moderate in intensity. Aim at a heart rate of 30% to 60% of your maximum. Studies show that recovery workouts are less effective when they are hard or vigorous.


Exercises for Active Recovery

There are many exercise options for active recovery. It's smart to choose an activity that you like so your recovery will be as beneficial to your body as your mind. Some active recovery workouts include:

Low-intensity exercise. It's OK to use your regular form of exercise for an active recovery workout. Just remember to dial down the intensity. If you walk or jog, do it at a pace that makes it possible to carry on a conversation. A bike ride is another option. You can even do weight training if you decrease your weight, repetitions, or both. 

Yoga . Yoga, and especially slow-paced disciplines like yin yoga, are great for recovery. Yoga can refresh you mentally and psychologically while aiding your physical recovery. 

Foam rolling. Some people find relief from sore muscles by using a foam roller, which combines the benefits of exercise and massage. To try this method, place the roller between the floor and the sore area of the body. Slowly roll on it to put light pressure on the muscles. 

Foam rolling can be uncomfortable, and beginners should use it in small doses while avoiding pressure on bones and joints.

Swimming and water exercise. Working out in water allows you to benefit from the pressure of the water on the body, which can be compared to the sensation of a light massage. This pressure improves circulation while minimizing stress on the joints. 

In one study on runners, those who used swimming for recovery outperformed a passive recovery group on a run the following day.

When Not to Use Active Recovery

Pain that exceeds normal soreness indicates that you may need rest or medical care. Besides taxing the muscles, exercise can put stress on bones, tendons, and cartilage. Pain in these areas is likely to be due to an injury. Active recovery strategies could make the injury worse. 

See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms following exercise:

  • Pain that is constant, sharp, or worsening 
  • Pain in the area of a previous injury or surgery
  • A painful area that looks deformed, bruised, or swollen
  • Pain that doesn't improve with rest, icing, or anti-inflammatory medications
  • Pain combined with fever, chills, nausea, or vomiting
  • Pain that interferes with sleep
WebMD Medical Reference



American College of Sports Medicine: "A Road Map to Effective Muscle Recovery."  

American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Active vs. Passive Recovery and Exercise Performance: Which Strategy Is Best?," "Could Yoga Be an Athlete’s Fountain of Youth?," "Passive Vs. Active Recovery: Which is More Effective?"

Cleveland Clinic: "Is There Such a Thing as ‘Good Pain’ and When Should You Listen to Your Body?" 

International Journal of Sports Medicine: "Effects of a recovery swim on subsequent running performance." 

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "'Good Pain' Versus 'Bad Pain' for Athletes." 

Journal of Human Kinetics: "The Properties of Water and their Applications for Training." 


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