Active recovery vs passive recovery - which is better?

Woman using a foam roller under her leg

Exercising is an essential part of keeping fit but equally important is recovery. Failing to allow yourself to recover can result in muscle and joint pain and fatigue, physical exhaustion, increased risk of injury and negatively impact future performance. There are two main types of recovery - active and passive recovery. Active and passive recovery are two different approaches to aiding the recovery process after exercise or physical activity. Let's explore each of them:

Passive Recovery

Passive recovery refers to a period of rest or inactivity following intense exercise. It involves allowing the body to recover naturally without engaging in any additional physical activity. During passive recovery, individuals typically refrain from exercise and focus on rest, sleep, and relaxation.

Advantages of passive recovery include:

  • Reduced muscle fatigue: Passive recovery allows the muscles to relax and reduces the accumulation of metabolic waste products, such as lactic acid, which can contribute to muscle fatigue.
  • Energy restoration: It provides an opportunity for the body to replenish energy stores, such as glycogen, which are depleted during exercise.
  • Reduced risk of injury: Resting allows the body to heal and reduces the risk of overuse injuries associated with excessive physical activity.

Disadvantages of passive recovery include:

  • Delayed recovery: Without engaging in active movements, passive recovery may lead to a slower recovery rate compared to active recovery methods.
  • Increased stiffness: Extended periods of inactivity can result in muscle stiffness and reduced flexibility.
  • Missed opportunities for active recovery benefits: Active recovery methods offer additional benefits that may not be fully realised with passive recovery alone.

Active Recovery

Active recovery involves engaging in low-intensity exercise or movement following intense physical activity. It focuses on gentle movements that promote blood circulation, aid in the removal of metabolic waste, and facilitate the recovery process.

Advantages of active recovery include:

  • Enhanced blood flow: Light exercise promotes blood circulation, which helps deliver oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, aiding in recovery.
  • Reduced muscle soreness: Active recovery can alleviate muscle soreness by facilitating the removal of metabolic waste products and reducing inflammation.
  • Increased range of motion: Engaging in gentle movements during active recovery can help maintain or improve flexibility and joint mobility.

Disadvantages of active recovery include:

  • Potential for overexertion: If the intensity of the active recovery exercises is too high, it may hinder the recovery process rather than aiding it.
  • Fatigue: In some cases, individuals may already be fatigued from intense exercise, and engaging in additional activity during active recovery could exacerbate fatigue levels.

Examples of active recovery and passive recovery:

Active Recovery

You may choose to engage in different forms of active recovery depending on the workout you are recovering from. For example, if your muscles are sore following an intense lifting session, your goal may be to get blood flowing back into those sore muscles. In this instance a less intense lifting session with lower weight and more reps, or stretching exercises either with or without resistance bands are some examples of an active recovery session targeting blood flow into these areas. Alternatively, a yoga session, walking, jogging and swimming would be a few ways to increase blood flow to all areas of the body without causing soreness or fatigue.

Passive recovery

Passive recovery includes the use of foam rollers, massage balls and massage sticks all of which will help to increase blood flow to the muscles, reducing swelling and promoting healing. The use of hot and cold therapies, including hot and cold showers are also examples of passive recovery. Hydration is essential. Drinking water is key player in passive recovery along with sleep which allows the body to recover and repair and grow stronger in preparation for the next workout.

It's worth noting that the choice between passive recovery and active recovery depends on various factors, including the intensity and duration of the previous exercise, an individual's fitness level, and personal preferences. Having active rest days can in fact be more beneficial than being inactive and help the body to recover more quickly. This is because it keeps the blood flowing, reducing inflammation, minimising the build up of lactic acid and warming the muscles without the risk of further damage, thereby speeding up the recovery process.

In many cases, a combination of both methods may be beneficial, with active recovery used during the initial phase and passive recovery employed afterwards to allow for optimal recovery. Consulting with a healthcare or fitness professional can help determine the most suitable recovery approach for specific circumstances.