Fitness Defined: Active and Passive Recovery

By , SparkPeople Blogger
We'll all been there. You just started working out after a long hiatus. You feel proud and accomplished, but wake up the next day feeling so stiff, sore and achy that you don't want to get out of bed! You slowly but surely get on with your day, but every time you have to move, you feel that stiffness (and feel self-conscious as you wobble around, barely able to bend your knees). While it's great to know that you must have done something right for your muscles to be so sore, it certainly doesn't feel right! You wonder: Should I take it easy and skip my workout? The answer is a little more complex than a yes or no. What you should try is active recovery. So what does that mean?

When you're sore during the days following a workout, you're most sore when you've spent a lot of time NOT moving, like when you wake up in the morning (after hours of lying in bed) or when you take a break at work (after hours of sitting still). These are the times that you notice that soreness the most. But the more you move, the more your muscles loosen up and feel better. That's the idea behind active recovery—get moving, get that blood pumping, warm up your muscles and break up that soreness.

Put simply, active recovery or "active rest" is sort of a hybrid between resting and exercising. It involves purposely exercising at a low-intensity as a means of helping your body recover from competition, high-intensity exercise, or muscle soreness. And a growing body of research shows that active recovery is more beneficial than passive recovery (completely resting from exercise).

Compared to passive recovery, active recovery can:
  • Help your muscle soreness to go away faster
  • Help your muscles recover and repair
  • Enhance your psychological/mental recovery
  • Promote mental and physical relaxation

And active recovery is simple. You can do pretty much any type of exercise, as long as you keep your intensity lower than what you'd do in a normal workout. Personally, when I get really sore, I like to walk, use the elliptical, or even bike at a comfortable intensity (about 55% to 70% MHR) for at least 30 minutes. Then, I follow up my "recovery" workout with an extended stretching session. It feels good to get moving and really stretch well, and a light workout is a nice change of pace, both mentally and physically.

BONUS FACT: The cool down you do after every workout is actually a form of active recovery. Cooling down does a lot more than help the body return to its resting heart rate and breathing rate. It also prevents post-workout lightheadedness (which can lead to fainting), speeds the removal of lactic acid from the muscles, and helps prevent muscle soreness in the hours and days following a workout. Now I know that most people tend to skip the cool down (and keep in mind that stretching is NOT the same thing as cooling down), but when you know that five minutes is well-spent to help you recover faster and prevent soreness, you might think again before skipping it.

So the next time you're facing sore muscles that make you want to skip your workout, think again! While you don't have to go all out when you're not feeling up to it, a light walk or easy yoga class may be just what your muscles need!

Are you more likely to recovery actively or passively? Now that you know the difference, will you cool down and try active recovery from now on?

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints


MUSICNUT 7/10/2019
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
NASFKAB 6/16/2019
Thank you Report
SUNSET09 4/10/2019
This covers us all, SparkFriends. Thank you for the learning opportunity! Report
RAZZOOZLE 1/22/2019
thank you Report
ELRIDDICK 11/3/2018
Thanks for sharing Report
TOMORROW-C 10/14/2018
Good to know, thanks. Report
Very helpful information. Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Very interested article. Report
Very interested article. Report
Proper recovery makes exercise more enjoyable and less dreaded Report
I love this concept! It brings hope into my life. Soon I will be having a knee replacement and I have been very upset about it. Now I know that I can still stay active but just do differently. Great blog! Thanks! Report
Yes, I once had a personal treainer for several sessions. She told me to ALWAYS warm up, exercise, then COOL DOWN, which means walk more slowly or turn down the ingtensity on the machine. Only THEN should you stretch. I often see people stretch on the golf course while waiting on the first tee. They've done no worm up. I will start doing a warm up then stretch. Report
I always cool down when I have an intense workout. Once a blood vessel in one of my fingers burst from not doing a cool down, and that really hurt. Now I never skip it! However, I only workout moderately right now, so it's not that big of a deal. I really don't need to do that now.

I thought you took a day off each week. Walking isn't really taking a day off. Maybe you should stop telling people you're doing that, since it's not true! Walking is what I do each day to get my fitness in, it's a real workout. A lot of doctors tell their patients to walk, so they must think it's a real thing to do too. Report
I'm starting to feel real good about myself for always warming up and cooling down after my jogging sessions. Some days I don't want to "waste" the time, but it's good to know that it benefits me more than I realize. Report
This really makes a lot of sense! When I recover passively I don't feel quite as good afterwards as if I just take an "easy" day the next day. I make myself take walking breaks at work. I get up and move at least once every hour. Sometimes I close and lock my office door to get in a 15-20 minute relaxing yoga routine in. And extending my cool downs has really helped with my recovery as well. SO important! Report
Thanks again. You are wonderful.
It makes feel so good to know that I do not have to do it all or nothing and that something like "active recovery" actually exists.
I am going to definitely recover in "active mode" from now on...
Thanks again. Report
I'm so glad to have this validation! I always enjoyed light walks on days I was too sore to do much else, but I certainly did not have a name for it and didn't know it was helping me too! Report
Thanks for the reminder! Yes, I've known this from a long time ago when I had problems with my back going out on me, and initially resigning myself to lying on a hard flat surface with my knees bent toward my chest, or getting to a chiropractor. Now when I get the occasional twinge in my lower back, I know that I'm better off to keep moving!
Now if I can just apply this principle to the FATIGUE I sometimes feel after a day of strenuous activity -- feeling tired is much more of a deterent to movement than pain is for me ... go figure! Report
I've just started doing a more intense strength training regime with a personal trainer for 1 hour sessions two days a week. And man, do I ever feel it the next two days and I have found that active recovery is MUCH better than passive. Thanks for the great information as it confirms my experiences these past few weeks. I now make sure that I do some form of exercise on the day after my sessions as it does help ease the soreness. Report
I've just started doing a more intense strength training regime with a personal trainer for 1 hour sessions two days a week. And man, do I ever feel it the next two days and I have found that active recovery is MUCH better than passive. Thanks for the great information as it confirms my experiences these past few weeks. I now make sure that I do some form of exercise on the day after my sessions as it does help ease the soreness. Report
This is exactly why I LOVE SPARK PEOPLE! All of the information is great. It seems to be well researched. And I LOVE the way I feel after a workout especially the day after. The way I see it pain is just weakness leaving the body I love it. Report
I find that I am making much better use of my exercise time since starting with SparkPeople - the information provided is very appropriate, easy to access and appears to be well-researched and based on science.
This article is an excellent example. Keep up the great information!! Report
It all depends on how bad it is. Lately I've been pulling my stomach muscles with that I do passive recovery. But If I'm just a little sore I love working out, I'm kind of weird in the sense that I like my body to hurt a little it makes me feel like I'm making a difference. Report
I agree great information. I found that Pilates the day after I over do it really helps my soreness go away.

This couldn't of come at a better time for me! I thought I needed to give my muscles a break! I am going to get some type of active recovery exercise in today. Thank you so much! Report
Yes I am more likely to cool down properly after reading this . I've learnt active recovery due to back and neck problems, it's always worse if I don;t move. Report
I only use passive recovery after competitive events or injuries. Report
I learned this by trial & error. Due to fibromyalgia, I've learned that the less I move the worse it gets. Any type of gentle movement on a regular basis is better than any hard core 2 time a week work out. Report
I always heard cooling down was important. If I feel short on time, I try to "cool down" while doing house chores (picking up toys, vacuuming, raking some leaves...). Guess that would be multi-tasking. Report
Great article, Coach Nicole! I was trying to explain this to my husband over the weekend but he was looking at me like "whatevah" so I'm going to forward this article to him. He sporadically decides he's going for a run and is miserable for days afterward. This is excellent advice! Report
I new this. that is why cramps after exercise, if passive. Report
I have been actively recovering from exercising since about 2000 when I learned about stretching and cool down. I always knew about warming up, but wasn't very good at it during competitions as a kid and middle aged adult. Now that I am in the older population of competitors, I definitely take advantage of all the warming-up, stretching, and cooling down. I walk daily. On active recovery days, I stroll more. On workout days, I run and swim. Swim workouts are all structured to include warm up and cool down. I stretch before entering the pool (in the shower) and sometimes during and after as well. Report
wow... i never knew about this... and i always skip my trip to the gym because of it... well, now i know i don't have a reason not to go anymore Report
I've always been a proponent of active recovery, and have done it without the title for years. It really does speed things up and keeps my momentum going. Report
Perfect timing on this blog - I feel that way today!! I will definitely do some light working out after work to ease my sore muscles. Report
I almost always cool down after a work out. The part I usually skip and know I shouldn't is the stretching part! Report
I do an active recovery of a 2-3 mile run the day after I either do my speed work or my long runs. Really helps! Report
I always try to cool down, but after 2 minutes, I get so bored! Report
This was great to know I have been so sore and was not too sure that its a good thing to be so sore but now that I have read this I must be doin something right but... what works for me is to take a hot shower Report
What a great post! It explains something I noticed myself, that a five minute cooldown on the elliptical really makes a difference in reducing soreness. This week I added a five to ten minute active stretching routine after my last two strength training workouts, using the intro to Kari Anderson's Reach, and have noticed that I'm not as sore as usual from lifting, either. Perhaps the extra active recovery is why! And here I thought I was just burning a few extra calories :) Report
Fantastic article.

I definitely engage in active recovery. If I do an intense workout one day that leaves me sore, the next day I'll walk or do yoga. For example, I was sore yesterday from a serious hike over the weekend, so I did some cardio yoga. I felt so much better afterwards from all of the stretching, and this morning I'm barely sore at all. Report
I have always wondered about this because alot of the times when I would skip a workout from soreness I would end up losing motivation. I have to keep going in order to stay on track so thanks its a big help! Report
I have also noticed this. When I feel sore the day after a good hard workout, I like to get on the elliptical b/c I feel so much better after. Report
I wish this post would have been a day earlier! Although I don't think it would have mattered much. I worked out with a personal trainer on Sunday (one session was free with my gym membership - they have to be able to sell ya right?) And let me tell you - I could not do stairs on Monday and while I am moving around better today - I still have problems sitting and getting up from sitting because we did so many squats and lunges! It was a great work out and I do wish I could afford a personal trainer! Today I will get on the treadmill and do an easy walk since I am in not so much pain! Report
this just reinforces what i have actually been doing all along! i observed that doing light activity the next day always made me feel better especially if i followed up with an extra good stretching session. i never skip a good cool down either. Report
I have really achey joints, so I know that if I do too much the day before, I know I have to do something the next day just not alot. I usually just walk and I usually don't walk as much as I usually do. Report
I love this is so tempting to skip your workouts when you are sore, but when my running coach had me start doing active recovery walks after my runs, I am amazed how less sore I am in the subsequent days. And I never neglect a good warm-up AND a good cool-down! Report