As any good athlete can tell you, allowing your body the opportunity to recover after exercise is just as important as the exercise itself. Failure to do so can lead to problems such as inflammation, lactate buildup, and overuse injuries. But the recovery process isn’t as straightforward as it seems, and there are actually two major types of recovery that you need to consider: active and passive.
Active recovery, as the name implies, is when a person uses non-strenuous physical activity to stay nimble and keep their bodily fluids, such as blood and lymph, flowing. Passive recovery, on the other hand, is when a person uses rest to give their body a break, with as little physical exertion as possible.
Passive recovery gives your body an opportunity to rest, without having much of an impact on your abilities. Usually passive recovery involves a day of rest, to allow your muscles time to repair themselves, and to give you a bit of a mental break. But passive recovery can also include other activities that do not cause you to exert yourself, such as a steam room, a massage, or even very light exercise such as a leisurely walk.
Active recovery, on the other hand, involves a routine composed of easier exercises, or the same exercises on an easier level. The reduced intensity of the workout is intended to keep your ability levels from dropping, while still giving your body an opportunity to recover. One recommendation for active recovery states that you should exercise for one to two-thirds of your normal time, while keeping your heart rate between 60% & 75% of a normal workout.
When people discuss the benefits of active recovery, they tend to focus on chemical processes. The flow of blood and lymph are both helpful in the recovery process, and exercise has been shown to help clear metabolic waste faster than rest. But a major advantage that is often overlooked is the fact that the reduced intensity of active recovery gives people an opportunity to focus more on their technique. This can not only improve their overall skill levels, but can also prevent them from exercising with improper form over long periods of time, which can have negative consequences in the long run.
A simple way to understand the benefits of active recovery versus passive recovery is to think about sleep. There is no escaping the fact that you need sleep. You will always need to sleep a certain amount on a regular basis, or you will not be physically able to move around. The same is true for recovery: you will always need breaks. But in the same way that sleeping too much can actually leave you feeling more tired than sleeping the correct amount, resting too much will reduce your physical ability.
Just as moving around can be the best way to wake up, exercise can sometimes be the best way to reinvigorate a tired body. So when you are recovering from exercise, don’t ask whether active or passive recovery is better, because you normally want a mix of both.