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Recovery

Active Recovery Versus Passive Recovery: Which Is Better for Athletes?

Updated 
August 31, 2020
Written by 
Jai

When it Comes to Athlete Training, Recovery is Crucial

Woman sweating from gym workout

The significance of recovery in athletic training can’t be stressed enough. Athletes train hard, train often and sometimes, train too much. While pushing one’s physical boundaries IS necessary to improve performance, the fact is athletes can benefit from both short- and long-term recovery methods.


In order to repair muscle damage - and get stronger, faster, and bigger - an athlete must include recovery in their training plans. Not only does this help the body heal, taking time off to recover prevents burnout and injuries that can set an athlete back for weeks or even months.


There are two types of recovery that are at the center of debate in the sports industry: active and passive. Is one really better than the other at boosting athletic performance? What are the differences between the two? Can methods like percussive therapy help during recovery periods? If so, how?

What is Active Recovery?

Photo of woman jumping

Recovery does not always mean zero activity. While there are days when an athlete should really avoid physical activity of any kind, taking an active approach can boost recovery from intense training.


Active recovery means doing low intensity workouts that help with blood flow to aching muscles. This helps athletes recover faster and better. However, there is a slight catch to it. Athletes need to move around enough to stimulate blood flow to the problem areas, but do it gently enough to allow muscles to recover.


Athletes on active recovery days should:

  1. Increase heart rate without putting more stress to muscles and joints.
  1. Improve blood flow to sore muscles
  1. Maximize isometric moves
  1. Prep the body for the next intense training day

Active recovery benefits

Athletes going on active recovery days have the following benefits to look forward to:

  1. Improved endurance and cardio health.
  1. Better blood flow to muscles and joints - helpful when there’s swelling.
  1. Contributes to a more balanced lifestyle. 
  1. Improved mental and emotional health.

Exercises for active recovery days


Depending on an athlete’s fitness level and availability (for athletes that travel a lot), active recovery exercises should go anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes at a time. Remember, active recovery exercises are not supposed to be the usual structured training that athletes do. It is more about keeping those muscles and limbs moving to help blood flow and improve mobility. Example of these exercises are:

Low intensity sessions on a stationary bike or treadmill.

Man using an exercise bike

Keeping the heart rate between 120 - 140 bpm - an easy jog, really. Nothing too crazy. Low intensity cardio is great not just for muscle recovery, it burns fat as fuel by using the athlete’s aerobic energy system. Swimming or surfing is another great exercise, not to mention enjoyable.

Light resistance workouts.

Man holding a dumbbell while sitting down

Athletes can use lighter weights, kettlebells or just their body weight. No heavy lifting - just enough resistance to incorporate body movements with low to moderate circuit exercise.

Stretching exercises.

Woman doing stretching exercise on the floor

This type of exercise lengthens muscles and tendons which aid in recovery. In addition, these exercises improve an athlete’s mobility and flexibility (handy for crossfitters and weightlifters, to be perfectly honest). Again, opt for easy routines and forms.

While not strictly an exercise, getting a massage is another thing you can do during active recovery days.

Photo of Hydragun recovery device used on body

This usually means getting percussive therapy for back pain and sore muscles either by going to a professional masseuse or using handheld recovery devices like Hydragun.


Lactic acid is produced by muscles when it is over-exerted, which causes swelling and pain. Percussive massage works by reducing muscle lactate levels faster and promoting blood flow into the problem areas. As a result, recovery is sped up and muscles become stronger.

What About Passive Recovery?

Photo of chalkboard on the floor


Passive recovery after intense workout or training basically means resting. It means putting your feet up and doing nothing that would add more stress to the muscles and joints. The body is given complete, unadulterated rest - period. 


Even with the obvious benefits of active recovery, most trainers and pro athletes advise taking at least one day of the week for complete passive rest. And it is as much a mental break as anything. There is a huge difference between an athlete knowing he has 6 days of solid training and 1 complete rest day ahead of him, and knowing that he has to train every day for the next - let’s say, 30 days straight. 


An athlete can power through 6 days of training - heck, anyone can do it. Because they know they’d get to rest at the end of those 6 days. But 30 days with no break at all will make even the most dedicated of athletes lose it. Because athletic training is as much a mental challenge as it is physical. 


Passive recovery however is an absolute must when athletes are sick, injured, or just clearly needs a physical and mental break. The best time to go on passive recovery mode is the day after an intense training or workout. Listening to what the body is saying is also crucial. Stop and rest when needed, as being held hostage by work ethic can be detrimental to an athlete’s overall performance.

So those are the pros. Are there cons to active and passive recovery?

Photo of woman wearing boxing gloves


Active Recovery - Cons

The biggest con for active recovery actually has less to do with the concept of the recovery itself and more to do with basic human nature.


As we mentioned above, the whole point of active recovery days is to help the body heal through low impact exercises. The problem is some people have poor self-control and this is where active recovery usually goes wrong.


Too often a person comes into the gym and starts doing recovery exercises. Then if they feel great and are able to push through the exercise without much discomfort, they increase the intensity and turn what’s supposed to be a low intensity recovery exercise into a full workout. 


Or, they think that there’s no point leaving the house, driving for half an hour to go to the gym, changing into gym clothes and then exercise for 20 minutes, then drive back home, so they think: “what the heck, I’m just ‘gonna work out.” Exercise volume is increased, intensity is taken up several notches and it gets justified for any reason they can think of. They turn what should be a recovery exercise into a full workout session.

So what happens? The easy exercise days become too hard, which makes the hard training days practically useless. Rather than alternating hard training days with active recovery days, every training they do ends up becoming middle intensity because the take-it-easy days have become too hard, and the actual go-hard-or-go-home days can’t be hard enough. The concept of active recovery is gone, really.

Passive Recovery - Cons

For some athletes, taking complete rest days can do more harm than good, because their performance flattens out. They lose their momentum and feel, which is common among high intensity athletes like weightlifters and sprinters. In these cases, active recovery is the better option provided that the intensity of the workout is  kept under control.

So, which one is the better approach for athletic recovery?

Man carrying a barbell


Both active and passive recovery are effective at keeping an athlete in top form. The key is to have a balance between the two. A balanced approach helps the body not only to recover faster but to become stronger, thus boosting an athlete’s overall performance.

What can be done to integrate both active recovery and passive recovery into training?


1. Start and end every training session properly

Woman stretching before a workout

Always do proper warm ups before training and cool downs after training for at least 10 minutes each. Go for a combination of static and dynamic stretches that works best for your fitness level or the type of workout you are about to do.


2. Sleep, sleep, sleep.

Photo of someone sleeping

Get at least 8 hours of sleep every day. That’s 56 hours of sleep every week. Keep to a sleep schedule - make sure that you go to sleep and wake up around the same time. Also, the quality of sleep is as important as the quantity. Keep gadgets away from the bedside table. Avoid eating heavy meals at least two hours before you go to bed.

3. Work on your core

Woman doing a core exercise

Incorporate core strengthening exercises into your training at least once a week. This improves balance and helps lessen muscle aches and soreness post workout.

4. Keep yourself hydrated

Woman Drinking Water While Standing Beside Her Bike

While drinking three liters of water a day is the minimum, you need to drink more when training. Staying hydrated helps with muscle repair.

5. Massage helps 

Photo of someone getting deep tissue massage


Muscle soreness and pain always come with intense training, and getting a post-workout massage helps. In addition, it improves mood, eases anxiety and stress.  As we mentioned above, lactic acid is produced in the muscles after intense physical activity as part of the body’s natural repair process. 


This natural repair process however, also causes swelling and pain. A massage improves the blood flow to the muscles and reduces lactic acid build up, and promotes muscle strength. Many athletes use a massage gun post workout or even take a break in the middle of a game to use one.

Hydragun sports recovery tool

These recovery devices are handy for athletes that travel a lot or if you go to a gym that doesn’t offer post workout massage facilities. There are many of these devices out in the market today, so it would help to do research to find the best percussive therapy device you can use.

The takeaway


Three people jogging


So how exactly do you tell if you should do passive recovery and take a complete day (or days) off versus active recovery and doing light exercises?


If your body feels so beat up and you weren’t getting a restful night’s sleep or your heart rate is higher than normal - take the day off. Coaches check their athlete’s heart rate and blood pressure before starting an intense training session, and this is the reason why. Athletes need to be at their top form both physically and mentally in order to be successful. And this involves taking passive recovery days.


If however,  you’re feeling sore and achy from your last session, and just feel that you can’t do intense training at the moment, it’s advisable to keep those muscles and limbs moving through active recovery exercises. It may not help a lot in improving performance, but it can keep a healthy blood flow going through problem areas and speed up recovery so you can get back to your A game.


How about you? What’s your take on active versus passive recovery? Let us know by commenting on this post or sharing it with someone you think would find it helpful by clicking on one (or all) of the social media buttons on the right. Better yet, if you have questions like how does percussive massage therapy work? or why does a massage gun look like a power drill? Feel free to read our previous posts!



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