Hint: Sometimes it’s more than anxiety creeping up at night.

No matter if you’re an exercise newbie or a veteran athlete, you’ve likely heard of active recovery—whether or not you know exactly what it is. Rest days are important in any routine, but it turns out the best active recovery workout may be just as good (or better) at promoting optimal healing of worn-out muscles, so you come back stronger more quickly.

Even as a long-time recreational athlete, I’m new to incorporating active recovery. I’ve always had self-planned run days, strength training days, and full rest days. However, this year, I decided to work with a trainer to prevent injury in my middle age.

We agreed upon two days a week of strength training to complement my running. When I checked my training app, I was surprised to find three workouts.

One of them was labeled “active recovery.” That was not what we discussed—did I have to give up one of my precious rest days? But I enlisted his help for my own good, so I had to give it a try.

Let’s just say, I’m now a believer. That recovery workout was the perfect amount of activity to help me loosen my stiff and achy joints and muscles, without breaking a sweat.

So how do you know how much to do on your active recovery days? Are active recovery days better than rest days? And how often should you do them?

We looked to personal trainers to answer these questions and share their must-do moves to create the best active recovery workout.

Benefits of active recovery vs. total rest

What’s the benefit of doing active recovery over a low-key, lazy day? “When we move, we are promoting blood flow,” says Nicole Winter, CPT, senior coach at Ladder. “I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘motion is lotion’, which is exactly why incorporating active recovery can be so important to help our bodies recoup after a tougher bout of exercise.”

Anyone who’s spent hours on the couch knows it stiffens your joints. Admittedly, as a writer and Grey’s Anatomy binge-watcher, I often spend my breaks hobbling to the bathroom or the fridge. But the benefits of active recovery show that it’s worth doing.

1. Improved recovery time

Exercise fatigues your muscles and your body adjusts to the demand by rebuilding muscle tissue. Active recovery can improve this recovery period.

While rest is an important part of the fitness equation, Sean Steerforth, NASM-CPT, stretch practitioner for StretchLab, recommends active recovery over low-activity rest days because of the benefits.

“[Active recovery] enhances blood circulation, reduces muscle stiffness, and aids in quicker muscle repair, while still allowing the body to rejuvenate without the intensity of regular workouts,” he says.

2. Reduced pain and inflammation

Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is no joke. It’s uncomfortable to sneeze, laugh, or sit. Leg day got you dreading a simple bathroom break? Muscle edema (swelling) and inflammation may be contributing to your sore and stiff muscles—and active recovery can help.

When you push yourself through a tough workout, your lactate levels increase. The buildup of lactate, or acidosis, can cause tenderness in your muscles. The quicker your body removes the lactate, the better you’ll feel. When compared to passive rest, active recovery significantly speeds up the process.

Some research suggests active recovery may provide the anti-inflammatory benefits of a cold plunge, without freezing your tail off.

3. Improved flexibility and mobility

Dynamic stretching—deliberate stretching that moves through the entire range of motion—should be a regular part of the best active recovery workouts. Stretching can improve the range of motion around your joints. This allows you to become more flexible.

While you don’t need to be as flexible as a world-class gymnast, improved flexibility will pave the way for more efficient movements and reduced risk of strain. Adding in mobility work helps your muscles become more pliable so you’re able to improve your mechanics—and avoid injury.

What is active recovery?

Most exercise causes some sort of physical stress to our bodies. That stress can be a good thing, if we allow our bodies to recover and adapt to the training load; we come back fitter and stronger. Recovery and repair are just as important as your tough workouts.

“Active recovery should look like a super relaxed, low-impact workout.”—Nicole Winter, CPT

Exactly what qualifies a workout as active recovery vs. a regular workout? The effort. According to Winter, you shouldn’t be pushing yourself. “Active recovery should look like a super relaxed, low-impact workout. Your heart rate should remain at a lower steady state without spiking.”

During your regular workouts, you’re challenging yourself—moving out of your comfort zone. Active recovery is the opposite. “Keep your heart rate at 30 to 60% of your maximum, to ensure the activity promotes recovery without adding significant stress to your body,” suggests Steerforth.

To estimate your maximum heart rate, take 220 minus your age. Then multiply by 0.3 and 0.6 to get your target range. (If you’re 35, your MHR is around 185 beats per minute. So the best active recovery workout will keep your heart rate under 111 bpm.) It shouldn’t take much movement to get to that target.

Categories: Heath Fitness


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