What is Active Recovery? 11 of the Best Activities to Do on Your Rest Days
It’s easy to get carried away by the feel-good sensations you get from exercise, whether you find it meditative, empowering, or therapeutic. But remember: Leave room for active recovery instead of going full speed with your workouts every single day and never taking time to rest. Your body needs time to rest in between hard exercise sessions so that it can repair itself properly—and come back stronger. Plus, if all your body gets is physical stress without rest, you can reach the point of diminishing returns, or the point at which more exercise doesn’t result in any more progress.
“Think of it this way: If you don’t give your body time to adapt to the physical demands, it will never get a chance to ‘catch up’ and get stronger,” Lindsey Corak, a certified personal trainer at Life Time Athletic Boston and TEAM Burn program lead, tells SELF. But that doesn’t mean you need to avoid all activity on your rest days. Here’s why active recovery should be part of your weekly workout routine.
What It Is
Active recovery, also called active rest, is when you do some sort of movement that is less intense than your regular workout days. That can mean anything from yoga or light stretching, a walk, or a leisurely jog. In general, an active recovery day features easy workouts equivalent to no more than 60 to 70 percent of your maximum effort (low to moderate intensity). For example, if you’re training for a marathon, you can use an active recovery day as an opportunity to walk a few easy miles or take a gentle yoga class to work on flexibility.
Benefits of Active Recovery
Working at a lower intensity will help increase recovery from your previous workout by increasing blood flow to your muscles and tissues. Giving your circulation a little boost helps get nutrients (like amino acids and oxygen) to your muscles so they can repair themselves. It also helps flush out waste products that built up during exercise (like hydrogen ions and lactic acid) and contribute to muscle damage and fatigue, Michael Rebold, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., department chair of the integrative exercise program and assistant professor of integrative exercise science at Hiram College in Ohio, tells SELF.
Not to mention, dialing it down for an active recovery day can offer a refreshing mental break from intense training, Alberta-based kinesiologist and exercise physiologist Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., tells SELF.
Active vs. Passive Recovery
Planning an “active recovery” workout on rest days is a great way to give your body a break without being totally sedentary. Unlike passive recovery days—where you’re sitting on your couch all day binge-watching Stranger Things—active recovery days involve movement. Both active and passive recovery days, however, are important for giving your body the adequate rest it needs. Sometimes you’ll want to schedule an active recovery day in order to help increase blood flow to sore muscles; other days, you’ll want to sleep in to help with fatigue. Make sure both types of rest are regular parts of your workout routine.
Tips to Keep in Mind
If you’re training more than five days per week, or you just hate the idea of taking a day completely off from exercise, consider subbing out one of your weekly workouts for an active recovery day. If you’re currently training three or four times per week, you can turn a couple of your “off” days into active recovery days to keep building strength and aerobic fitness even when you’re not working at your hardest. That being said, complete full-on couch-mode rest days (as well as sleep) are a worthy part of your training routine too. There’s nothing wrong with taking days off completely, so don’t forget to listen to your body and give it a break when it needs one.
Examples of Active Recovery Activities
To help you plan your next active recovery day, we asked our experts to lay out some of the best options.
1. Tai chi
A low-impact form of martial arts, tai chi is great for building strength, balance, and total-body awareness. It’s characterized by slow, flowing movements, making it ideal for activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps our bodies calm down and recover from the stress of our intense workouts and daily lives. Research shows tai chi offers a host of aerobic fitness-boosting, pain-relieving benefits. For example, a review in the journal PLOS One suggests tai chi may improve aerobic fitness in healthy adults, while a small study of 72 people in the Journal of Rheumatology shows a 12-week tai chi exercise program significantly reduced pain and stiffness in people with arthritis. Tai chi is also a classic mind-body exercise, so you’ll reap the meditative, stress-reducing benefits while you’re at it.
This tried-and-true recovery activity not only increases flexibility, but it also teaches proper breathing techniques and body control. In addition, an easy yoga flow also promotes blood flow to help repair your broken-down muscle tissues, says Corak.
3. Light resistance training
Yes, you can still lift on your easy day if you want to. In fact, performing high-rep exercises with a light weight (light as in about 30 percent of the heaviest weight you could use) helps stimulate blood flow and supply nutrients to the working tissue without straining or tearing them down, Corak says. Pick five to eight exercises to create a full-body circuit, and perform each move for 40 seconds, followed by 20 seconds of rest. Repeat for a total of three to four rounds. As a bonus, you can use these light training sessions to work on perfecting your exercise form. While light lifting can be a great active recovery method for some, you probably want to skip it if you’re feeling too sore from your last workout. Stick to the lighter forms of activity on this list (and try some of the things on this list to help get some relief).
4. Hip and core activation exercises
Your core and hips power your every movement, whether you’re getting up to refill your coffee mug or squatting with a heavy barbell. Keeping these critical muscles—which include your abdominals, low back muscles, glutes, hip flexors, and hip adductors—firing on your off days will help prep your body for the more intense work you may have planned for the days ahead, strength and conditioning coach Erica Suter, M.S., C.S.C.S., tells SELF. Simply put, keeping them working will keep them limber and trained to activate when you need them during your hard workouts. Consider these your go-to moves and sprinkle them throughout your day: bird dogs, dead bugs, bodyweight glute bridges, fire hydrants, and planks.
According to corrective exercise specialist Dani Almeyda, M.S., C.E.S., co-owner of Original Strength in North Carolina, crawling builds full-body strength, endurance, focus, and better posture. In fact, a quick five-minute crawl session is enough to challenge your heart, lungs, and muscles while giving your joints a much-needed break. “It should leave you feeling more refreshed than absolutely exhausted,” Almeyda tells SELF. Start with the baby crawl (it’s exactly what it sounds like) and progress to the leopard crawl: