Your All-Inclusive Guide to Active Recovery

Learn how incorporating active recovery days into your workout routine can improve performance and help you meet your fitness goals.

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Catchy, old-school phrases such as "move it or lose it" and "no pain, no gain" are familiar motivational tools in the fitness world. Essentially, they tell you that you'll need to hustle if you want to achieve your health goals.

But actually living by those mantras — and believing that training harder, faster, and more often is a requirement for success — only increases your risk of burnout, injury, and overtraining, says Allison Tibbs, a NASM-certified personal trainer and Tonal coach. Just like the car you take on a 12-hour road trip, you need to give your body the opportunity to take a break and refuel if you want to reach your final destination without running on fumes, she says.

"This is why active recovery is so important," says Tibbs. "It gives you moments to lean into self-care while not slowing down your progress."

Here, fitness experts dish all the need-to-know info on active recovery, including what it involves and why it's essential to include in your fitness routine. Plus, they share ideas on how to plan out active recovery days that keep you feeling your best, both physically and mentally.

What Does Active Recovery Mean?

Active recovery entails performing gentle movements and exercises to recover from vigorous training and workouts, says Katie Fogelson, a NASM-certified personal trainer, MIRROR trainer, and lululemon ambassador. "Instead of taking complete rest, you're strategically moving your body in other, less intense ways to aid and potentially speed up the recovery process," she says.

These activities are generally slower, lower-impact, and lower-intensity than the workouts you tackled in the days prior, but that doesn't mean they have to feel completely effortless, adds Tibbs. "You can still break a sweat and challenge yourself, but the goal is to not overdo it or put your body into a high-stress situation," she explains.

While active recovery days give your body and mind the opportunity to recoup while in motion, passive rest days involve doing nothing related to your training, says Tibbs. "Rest days are days where you lean into stillness and true rest from your training program," she explains. "It's an opportunity to catch up on sleep, especially if you work out early in the morning, or you can catch up on other tasks for your day if you work out during lunch or at night."

The Benefits of Active Recovery

Skipping a high-intensity workout in favor of a chill active recovery practice comes with many benefits for your body.

Speeds Up Muscle Recovery

For one, "active recovery can improve blood flow, aiding in faster muscle recovery by flushing out metabolites and/or lactic acid, which can build up during intense training," adds Fogelson. ICYDK, lactic acid is the term used to describe the lactate and hydrogen ions that are formed within your muscles' cells and released into your blood during glycolysis — the process in which your body converts glucose into energy during high-intensity exercise. When your body can't clear the lactate and hydrogen ions out of your blood fast enough while you're exercising, your performance decreases, according to information published by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). Switching to a lower-intensity activity, however, can help remove those substances from your body and get you back to performing your best, according to the NASM.

Helps You Meet Training Goals

Active recovery can also be helpful for folks who struggle to give themselves permission to take a full-on rest day, as it gives the body a chance for R&R while still moving, says Fogelson. "This is a great way to also keep up with the overall volume of training needed — depending on the person or athlete — without overdoing it," she explains. For example, a runner could continue to get their miles in for the week by taking lighter jogs on active recovery days. "This allows them to add the necessary volume to meet their training goals without too much fatigue or added stress to the body," she adds.

Prevents Burnout

Opting for gentle activities on active recovery days — or even just giving yourself a day off from any movement — can also do your mental health some good. "Active and passive rest days can provide an opportunity to rest mentally to help prevent burnout and potential overtraining," says Fogelson.

When to Take an Active Recovery Day

The exact number and type of recovery days needed vary from person to person, largely depending on the intensity and frequency of workouts throughout the week, says Fogelson. But as a general rule of thumb, Tibbs recommends taking an active recovery day every three days, especially if you're exercising at least five days a week. "This will ensure that you are giving your body enough time to recover and repair," she adds. You may also benefit from an active recovery day after pushing through a high-intensity workout, such as heavy lifting, long-distance cycling, or a marathon run, suggests Fogelson.

And just like the workouts themselves, it's important to schedule active recovery days — and full-on rest days — into your training routine, says Fogelson. "Don't leave it up to chance," she says. "For most people, these days can feel boring or not productive, so if you don't schedule them in, you probably will either skip it altogether...or push yourself." Of course, listening to your body is essential, and you should take an active recovery or rest day when you need it — even if it's not penned into your calendar. "If you're consistently showing up to your workouts feeling tired and sore, that may be a sign you're under-recovered," says Fogelson.

Your mental and emotional state shouldn't be overlooked, either. "If you have been burning the candle at both ends, have a lot of stress from your life, or even if your sleep hasn't been optimal, you may also need to take a full rest day," adds Tibbs. "This is where I see a lot of people get injured because they are not mentally present or don't have the capacity to be mindful of their form or even make the best choices for their bodies and training."

On the same token, consider the "why" behind your workout. Are you pushing yourself to go for a long-distance run because you know it will help you get one step closer to reaching your training goals, or is it because you'd feel guilty if you skipped it? "Chances are, if the compulsion comes out of guilt, you may not be in the right headspace to train hard, and choosing a lighter activity (or just something fun!) could be even more beneficial," says Fogelson.

Active Recovery Activities

When choosing an active recovery activity, first consider which muscle groups have been worked over the last few days, then choose an exercise or practice that prioritizes healing them. If you've been striving to hit a new deadlift or squat PR, for instance, focus on movements that help your lower body recuperate, suggests Tibbs. Still, "be open to other areas that may cause you trouble," she adds. "For example, I tend to add in some shoulder and thoracic mobility work to my active recovery days, regardless of what muscles I taxed, because I know that is a 'sticky' spot on my body."

The intensity of your active recovery activity also matters. Generally, your rating of perceived exertion during your active recovery practice should be between four and six on a scale of one to 10, says Tibbs. "You shouldn't be trying to max out, get PRs, or aim for feeling sore," she says. "Instead, focus on taking the muscles and joints through movement patterns that will provide some conditioning without taxing the body too much."

To give your body the TLC it needs, consider incorporating any of the following activities into your active recovery routine. Choose the practices that you personally enjoy and target the muscle groups that are feeling particularly drained from your previous workouts.

These activities not only help you recover from yesterday's HIIT workout or Peloton cycling class, but they can also improve your future performance, says Tibbs. "You can call back on what you did and apply it to your workouts," she says. "For example, when I am taking time to breathe and connect with my core on my active recovery days, I'm able to call back that sensation and connection when I'm doing heavy front squats."

The Takeaway On Active Recovery

Active recovery days are key to feeling physically and mentally restored after an aggressive week of workouts. And though they're tempting to skip, they should be a staple in any training routine.

"Active recovery can feel counterproductive to reaching your goals because, as a society, we glorify the hustle and bustle," says Tibbs. "However, in those moments of active recovery, you are giving your body the opportunity to replenish all of the hard work you're doing with your training and ensure you're setting yourself up for success."

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