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What Is Active Recovery and When Should You Use It in a Workout?

Active recovery is the engagement of low-intensity exercise after completing a heavy workout or athletic event. As paradoxical as it may seem, the best way to recover from a marathon or other sports competition is to exercise at a lower intensity rather than remaining still.

As opposed to passive recovery, active recovery better addresses how your body responds to extreme physical exertion, alleviating the stress placed on muscles, joints, connective tissues while improving muscle growth and strength.

Benefits

Active recovery is beneficial to an athlete in a number of key ways:

It reduces the build-up of lactic acid in the muscles, minimizing post-exercise stiffness and discomfort.

It helps alleviate fatigue and improve moods that typically crash after a heavy sporting event.

It promotes blood flow to the joints and muscles, counteracting inflammation.

It maintains the heart rate at a steadier state, improving endurance and training volumes.

 

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Metabolism

Lactic acid is a by-product of carbohydrate metabolism. It is produced in the muscles when the level of physical exertion outstrips your ability to keep up aerobically. Aerobic exercise implies a level of activity in which your oxygen intake is considered ideal to burn the fuel stores in your body (namely glycogen, glucose, and fat).

By contrast, anaerobic exercise implies that you are burning fuel in excess of your oxygen intake, eventually leading to muscle exhaustion and failure.

Once you push your heart rate above 80% of its maximum heart rate (MHR), you move into an anaerobic state. It is then that production of lactic acid begins to intensify.

By reducing your MHR to below 80%, you return to an aerobic state and are able to move the lactic acids from the muscles to the bloodstream more effectively. (Stopping activity altogether simply allows the acids to pool.) Active recovery maintains the heart rate at levels more conducive to lactic acid clearance.

Broadly speaking, there are three forms of active recovery.

After a Workout

Active recovery during the cool-down phase of exercise may include things such as jogging or cycling at a slower pace. It differs from a typical cool-down in that it lasts longer than a few minutes. As such, it can be considered an extension of the exercise routine itself.

The primary goal is to maintain the heart rate above the resting rate. Some of the activities used for active recovery include:

 

During Interval Training

Active recovery can also be used during high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Rather than sitting between intervals, you would maintain physical activity, albeit at a lower intensity. As with the cooling-down phase, it helps mitigate the build-up of lactic acid by keeping your heart rate up.2

During interval training, active recovery options may include low- to moderate-intensity exercises such as jogging, high-knee marching, deep lunges, and step touches.

After Competition

Rather than taking a day or two off following a competition or event, you can use active recovery to mitigate the sluggishness and soreness people often feel after extreme activity. This might include brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, or range of motion exercises using light weights. Aim for exercises for which your heart rate is less than 50% of your MHR.

Stretching and yin yoga can be useful as they engage the muscles, tendons, and fascia around the joints that typically seize up due to post-exercise inflammation. Massage can also help.

The one thing to avoid during active recovery days is overexertion, assuming that it will either help you lose weight faster or perform better. You need to take a sensible approach and listen to your body. Signs of overtraining include persistent soreness, change in sleep habits, unrefreshing sleep, and a general feeling of malaise (unwellness).

Whether you are a routine gymgoer or a professional-class athlete, try adding some low-intensity exercises to the end of a workout and see how it makes you feel. Start with a little at a time and gradually build up, trying different exercises to see which ones you enjoy and can sustain over the long term.