The concept of recovery might evoke images of lounging on the couch or resting in bed, doing the absolute minimum amount of physical work to let our bodies recharge. There’s some merit to this method (depending on what it is you’re recovering from), but sometimes one of the most effective tactics for getting back to 100% is more movement, strategically approached and timed during or between workouts.
Active recovery is the concept of using low-intensity activity to improve the rate and quality of your recovery from a high-intensity activity. We spoke to Colorado-based Certified Personal Trainer and strength coach Sam Moses about the science and benefits of active recovery. According to Moses, keeping your body in motion is both a way to recover from intense athletic performance and lead a healthier life.
“These high-intensity activities break down your body, and active recovery helps your body build itself back up quicker,” Moses says. “The extra movement improves circulation, which helps shuttle nutrients to the muscles and waste products away. While it may seem intuitive to not be active at all on rest days, that is never the case, excluding illness and injury. Our bodies require movement, and whether you’re exercising or not, most everyone should get some form of activity every day.”
What Is Active Recovery & What Is Its Role?
And now, for a brief science lesson.
Active recovery helps your body more quickly flush out the amount of lactic acid buildup in your muscles.
“When your muscles use high-demand energy systems, they create a byproduct called lactic acid that is expelled into the bloodstream,” Moses said. “That acid then breaks down into lactate and a hydrogen ion, which is a fancy way of saying your blood becomes acidic, hence why your muscles ‘burn’ during a workout. To get rid of that lactate, your blood circulates it to other muscles where it is turned back into a usable energy source.”
There are three times to engage in active recovery:
- During a high-intensity workout — Moving during your downtime can help speed up recovery and increase the amount of time before you fatigue.
- Between workouts (off-days) — While maxing out at the gym seven days a week might seem appealing, it’s key to schedule a couple of off-days into your routine. Engage in some light activities on those days to keep the body moving.
- After a workout — Cool down with lighter actives after a high-intensity workout.
As part of his undergraduate kinesiology lab research, Moses helped design an experiment around active recovery. In it, subjects rode an assault bike at a high intensity for four three-minute bouts, with three minutes of rest in between. They performed this exercise interval twice, sitting stationary during the three-minute rest period for the first round, and pedaling at a low intensity in the second round.
Moses and his classmates took blood samples from the subjects during these rest periods and found that every subject who engaged in the low-intensity cycling during rest had both quicker lactate clearance and lower overall lactate levels.
“The active recovery protocol led to significantly longer riding times and the ability to maintain higher energy outputs for longer,” Moses said. “The point being, with activities that require maximum exertion over and over again, keep your body moving during rest periods to improve your performance.”
Active Recovery Exercises
Active recovery exercises should be light. Moses recommends exercises that keep you at below 50% of your maximum heart rate. For example, in his undergrad assault bike experiment, the high-intensity output on the bike was more than 450 watts, while the recovery output was about 100 watts.
Some of the best active recovery exercises are:
- Yoga (which also increases flexibility)
- Foam rolling
Walking is an easy one to knock out because it has essentially zero barriers to entry. Just take a stroll around the neighborhood during an off-day to help your body recover and hit those daily 10,000 steps. Walking can also kick-start your metabolism, and offers easy exercise even to those who aren’t hitting the gym all week.
Moses is also a proponent of foam rolling. He launched a stellar all-in-one foam rolling kit called UltiROLL, which packs a handful of great active recovery and flexibility tools in one portable device.
“(Foam rolling) is the best way I’ve found to reduce soreness and get back to feeling 100% quicker, and provides the double benefit of improving your flexibility so that your body can move better when you need to perform,” he says. “I suggest finding out where you’re inflexible or in pain and find mobility drills to address those problems. By doing so, you kill two birds with one stone: fixing your body while simultaneously recovering faster.”
Below, we’ve linked some of our favorite tools for recovering from high-intensity activities.
1. Theragun Prime
BEST MASSAGE GUN
Our favorite massage gun is the Theragun Prime, and it’s worth the splurge. The grip, extended battery life and force (up to 30 pounds) and five speeds make it an absolute winner for your next active recovery session. Yes, it’s pricy, but if you’re going to go all-in on a massage gun, it should be this one.
2. Therabody Wave Roller
BEST HIGH-END FOAM ROLLER
There are plenty of affordable and effective budget foam rollers on the market, but if you want to take your active recovery to the next level, check out Therabody’s Wave Roller, which features five different vibration settings and Bluetooth connectivity to customize and track your rolling experience.
3. PLUNGE Ice Bath
BEST ICE BATH
Though it isn’t an active recovery tactic, cold plunge therapy remains a popular way to soothe chronic pains and ease soreness after a workout. This ice bath from PLUNGE is our favorite thanks to its auto-temperature settings and simple aesthetic. Be prepared to spend big, though, as any non-DIY ice bath system will arrive with a pretty high price tag.
4. Therabody RecoveryAir JetBoots
Sensing a trend here? Therabody is one of the biggest players in the high-end recovery game, and its JetBoots offer the same quality product design as the brand’s other premium recovery tools. The boots utilize a pneumatic compression system to increase blood flow and speed up the recovery process. These boots are travel-friendly, too, rolling up into a convenient and portable carrying sack.
5. Amazon Basics High-Density Foam Roller
BEST BUDGET RECOVERY TOOL
This list wouldn’t be complete without at least one budget tool, and Amazon’s foam roller delivers as an affordable and effective active recovery device. Available in four colors and four sizes, the dense polypropylene offers a more forgiving foam rolling experience, compared to the rigid trigger point designs of other offerings. It’s a great entry-level foam roller to kickstart your active recovery journey.