What to Know About Active Recovery Workouts

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on May 15, 2023
5 min read

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.

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 they 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.

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.

There are many exercise options for active recovery. It's smart to choose an activity that you like so your recovery will be as helpful 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 of runners, those who used swimming for recovery outperformed a passive recovery group on a run the following day.

Pain that exceeds normal soreness means 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 after 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

Rest: Taking a day off gives your body a chance to repair itself and replenishes your energy. Jennifer Rulon, a seven-time Ironman triathlete and triathlon coach, says the second day after an intense workout can be the toughest. So she suggests doing light exercise the day after a heavy workout, then taking off the next day.

Ice: Icing for 20 to 30 minutes can lessen blood flow to sore muscles, which often reduces swelling and pain. And remember: Just because you can't see muscles swelling doesn't mean they are not inflamed. Be sure to put a towel between the ice pack and your skin and stick to the time limit (20-30 minutes) to protect your skin. 

Heat: If your muscles still ache after 48 hours, try applying some heat (carefully). It can stimulate blood flow to your muscles to ease tightness and help them feel better. Try a warm (not hot) towel or heating pad. But be careful. Take care and watch your body's response. In some cases, heat can further inflame muscles. Follow manufacturer instructions to avoid skin burns, and avoid direct contact with any heating device.

Stretching: A gentle stretching routine can help break the cycle of tight sore muscles. Talk to your health care provider or a physical therapist if you're unsure where to start, especially if you have any injuries.

Massage: It can relieve muscle tension, boost blood flow, and increase the range of motion in your joints. It’s also a great mood lifter. When your muscles are sore, a gentle massage is best. Light pressure may be better for recovery than a deep-tissue massage. Or try tender-point acupressure in which a massage therapist applies pressure and holds it directly on the tender areas.

Medication: You can try an anti-inflammatory medication. Over-the-counter versions can reduce swelling and relieve pain. Try aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen.

Compression garments: Wearing compression­ sleeves during or after a workout can­ help decrease muscle soreness afterward ­and help you recover ­for your next workout. Sleeves might go over your calves when you run, and over your arms when you lift weights. Your health care team can help find the right fit for you.

Nutrition: Make sure you get enough nutrients to feed your tired muscles and replenish your energy stores. A good balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates is important. In general, protein helps with muscle repair and carbohydrates help replenish energy stores after aerobic exercise. Be sure to get enough water and electrolytes (essential minerals like sodium, potassium, and magnesium) too.