By Lara Ceroni | Photos by Blake Cortes

Whether you train six days a week, or two, your body lets you know when it’s ready to be put through a killer workout — and when it’s too dog-tired to even tie up your sneakers. So on days when stiff muscles suggest they’re not ready for another sweat sesh, do you press on to the gym or surf the couch?

When you have fitness goals on the brain, it can be all too easy to ignore your body’s requests to slow down or power off. A big part of rectifying this work/recovery imbalance is in actually identifying your body’s needs and knowing when it’s okay to push our limits versus needing a day off, and everything in between. Going into repair mode doesn’t always mean taking a day off of physical activity—and that’s where active recovery comes in. And the more we understand the difference, the more we can give our hard-working bodies what they crave.

Active vs. Passive

According to Adam Upshaw, a PhD, BKin professor of Exercise Science for Health & Performance at Niagara College, as well as Chair Elect at the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, recovery is something we all need to consider more seriously. “It’s obviously valuable to exercise most days of the week,” says Upshaw, “but if you’re constantly doing high-intensity or big load stuff, without a break or a day off, it will wreak havoc on your joints, your bones, and your mental health because of the stress level and fatigue these types of workouts induce.”

For Upshaw, it’s important to recognize that there are two schools of thought when it comes to what recovery means: the passive phase (total rest and taking a day off in between your workouts), and the active phase (lower-load exercise between your tougher workouts). Both are beneficial, and if you incorporate each into your exercise routine, that’s where he says the magic happens: “By giving your body a break, you’re actually making it stronger.”

In passive recovery, you focus on nutrition, hydration, and sleep. Taking that day off between your workouts yields benefits, mostly in your muscles’ ability to rebuild. “Rest is a key factor in ‘adaptation,’” says Upshaw, who strongly encourages you to take 24 hours off from exercise at least once per week. “Muscle fibers break down when you exercise, so in order for them to develop strength, size, or definition, cellular adaptation needs to occur, which means they need the time to rebuild and repair—and this usually takes a day, or longer. If you don’t give your body the time to adapt, it won’t.”

Active recovery, on the other hand, is when you don’t skip physical activity altogether, but rather, you just take it a little easier. This could mean a myriad of things: if you do a long run on Monday, go for a swim on Tuesday; if you’re strength-training on Wednesday, go to a yoga class on Thursday, and so on. “Active rest allows you to physically recover from the vigor of your training, and this type of program will maintain your fitness levels, too,” Upshaw notes.

The Benefits of Active Recovery 

Whether you’re a runner, a HIIT junkie, or a gym enthusiast, studies prove that incorporating active recovery into your exercise routine is critical for health and well-being. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness took a look at this issue in a recent study, putting subjects through high-intensity running intervals at 150 percent of their VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen the body can use during a specified period of usually intense exercise). Next, the subjects either performed gentle active recovery for 20 minutes (at 30 percent of their VO2 max), or they did some passive recovery (sat in a chair) for 20 minutes. Researchers found the rate of lactate disappearance was much quicker in the active recovery group than the passive recovery group. In plain language: They felt better, faster.

For Jody Strik, Registered PT and Director of the Outpatient Rehab Clinic at Halton Health Care, the benefits of active recovery also occur at the cellular level, and deal with our body’s tenacity at building lactic acid. When we exercise and use our muscles, lactic acid builds, contributing to that soreness you may feel 24-48 hours after a workout (known as delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS).

Strik emphasizes that it’s imperative to allow that acid to dissipate before you use the worked muscles again, otherwise you could be training all for nothing. “If you’re not having fresh oxygen into the muscles, if you don’t let the blood flow recover in those muscles you’re hammering, your training won’t move the needle,” says Strik. “You keep working harder and harder, and you’re not allowing those used muscles to recover, so you’ll never actually meet your goals. It’s a lose-lose situation.”  

When active recovery is done right—as in doing different exercises on different days—it will make you a better athlete overall. “If my patient is really into hardcore training, I will put them on a light stretching and resistance training program on their active recovery days. Similarly, for devout yogis, I’d actually move them into swimming. The intent is to keep them doing what they love, but to stay healthy while doing it. Ideally, we want people to keep moving forward, not back.”

Your Active Recovery Plan  

Kurt Truk, certified Personal Trainer and fitness instructor at Fit Factory Fitness in Toronto, Canada, as well as brand ambassador for Puma’s Team Faster campaign, shares his advice on how to bring more active recovery into your own routine. “Building recovery time into any training program is important because this is the time that the body adapts to stress of exercise and the real training effect takes place.”

Incorporate More Light-to-Moderate Training

“After an intense workout, I go light. Muscles and joints love circulation, and they love it even more when they are recovering from a challenging workout or activity. Opt for hot yoga, deep tissue massage, swimming, spinning, or a light jog. The next time you feel hammered from a workout, just remember that difference of waking up stiff and tired, and then feeling better after moving around for a few minutes. Movement brings blood and circulation back to the muscle and the joints.”

Mobility Training

“Mobility is all about improving our ability to move freely without stress on the body, and it can assist in gaining better range of motion of our joints and muscles. Use it as part of your warm-up, or within your training in the form of active rest. Try internal hip rotations, neck half-circles, ankle mobility exercises and banded calf-stretches for myofascial release. Just 15 minutes will work wonders.” 

Foam Roll 

“A foam roller is a recovery tool to help loosen tight muscles, work out knots, and increase circulation to prevent added muscle soreness or injury. Start with your calves, then work your way up your body to your quads, IT bands, glutes, torso, and chest. Make it a habit to roll out your entire body: Muscle groups are connected by connective tissue called fascia, so rolling out your whole body will allow your muscles to stay more balanced, recover faster, and be ready to kill your next workout!”

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