Passive vs. Active Recovery: Which Type Is Best for You?

What you do on rest and recovery days is just as important as what you do during workouts.
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Sure, it's super important to make time for exercise — lifting weights, getting stronger, training for a 5K and working up a sweat. However, you can't put your body through all that stress without giving it plenty of rest, too.


In order to repair muscle damage (and in fact, to get bigger, stronger, faster, leaner, etc.), you must include recovery in your fitness regimen. This way, you're also preventing overexercising, burnout and even injury.

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There are two main types of recovery: passive and active. Ideally, you want to include both to get the most out of your training. What's the main difference? "Passive recovery involves participating in no activity. Active recovery involves participation in light activity," says Corey Phelps, certified personal trainer.

What's Passive Recovery?

As mentioned above, passive recovery is a total rest day — zero exercise, nada. It's a must when you're injured, sick or your body is telling you need it, Phelps says. So if you've gone hard five days in a row, and you're dealing with major muscle soreness, you likely need to sit one out. "A true rest day is valuable in staving off burnout or risk of overtraining," she says.


When you're taking the day off, you can go about your day without much activity or you can get a massage, which can help with blood flow and relax your muscles. "The best time to use passive recovery is usually immediately after an intense workout or the following day," says Matt Pippin, certified strength and conditioning coach.

Read more: 13 Exercises to Help You Recover From an Injury


What's Active Recovery?

Rest is a beautiful thing, but the star of recovery seems to be active recovery, where you're still moving in some way but at a lower intensity. "Active recovery can range from light, low-intensity movements like biking or even jogging, to mobility work like foam rolling and gentle yoga," says Phelps.

It might also involve running in the pool or doing slow, light-weight strength training to stimulate your heart rate without causing anymore trauma to the body, says Pippin.


These types of workouts are truly beneficial for your body. They help reduce inflammation and stiffness, increase blood flow, mobility and flexibility and can help your body clear the build-up of lactic acid, says Phelps. After a HIIT class, your body is begging for you to take it down a notch (but you likely already know this from experience).


Passive vs. Active Recovery

So how do you tell if you should take the day completely off or push yourself to do some light exercise? "If your body feels completely beat up, your sleep was erratic, and/or your resting heart rate is higher than normal, then use the passive recovery," Pippin says.


On the other hand, if you're just a bit sore and can't go all out in your workout, keep your body moving with active recovery instead. You don't need to do passive recovery (or a total rest day) more than once a week, though, he says. You should be fine alternating between more intense workouts and active recovery for the majority of the week.

Read more: Top 10 Moves to Help You Recover From Your Workout


The Best Active Recovery Workouts

Looking to incorporate more active recovery into your fitness routine? Here are a few examples of workouts you can do. They'll keep blood circulation strong, aid in muscle repair and even burn some calories while you're at it.

Easy Strength Training or Weightlifting

You can still strength train on active recovery day, but at a lower intensity. "Light-weight training — often referred to as deloading — allows joints reprieve from heavy loads," Phelps says. It also prepares you for a new period of higher demands, she says.


If you regularly lift weights, deloading workouts are pretty easy to get the hang of: It's the same workout you'd normally do, but with much lighter weights and much lower reps and sets (less than three sets of about 8 to 10 reps), says Phelps.

Pippin recommends adding sled drags or pulls. "Using a sled, you can either walk backwards or forwards for either distance and/or time to stimulate the recovery process in your legs. The key is to keep the weight minimal and work on simply moving, controlled," he says.


Hatha, Yin or Restorative Yoga

After a HIIT class or long run, hop into a gentle yoga class or do some restorative yoga poses on your own. Hatha, restorative or Yin styles are great options, says Phelps.

"Yoga promotes flexibility, muscle activation and reduced inflammation in a low-impact way, allowing the muscle to stay engaged without overuse," she says. Give yourself a minimum of 30 minutes, but if you have some extra time, go for 60 to 90 minutes, which will offer the best results.


Swimming is the perfect recovery activity, as there's no pressure on the joints. "The lack of stress and impact of being immersed in water allows for freedom of movement when muscles are sore and tired," says Phelps.

This increases circulation, which, in turn, stimulates healing. Swim at an easy pace for 25 to 45 minutes to reap the full benefits. As for strokes, try breaststroke and freestyle, Phelps says, which are pretty simple. (Don't go for butterfly drills!)


Head on outdoors, hop on a bike and take in the fresh air and views. "A bike ride would be an excellent active recovery as long as you're not climbing large hills or mountains," says Pippin.

If the intensity is kept low, you can easily go for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours at a leisurely pace. Plus, biking is a form of transportation! Grab a Citi bike or take yours out for the day and commute to work.


Walking just might be the best (and certainly most convenient) way to stay active on your recovery days. A walk, especially a brisk one, keeps blood flowing through your muscles, says Phelps, and you'll get those 10,000 steps in (or at least somewhere near there). Better yet? Grab a buddy and take a walk together to catch up. You won't even notice the distance.

Foam Rolling

Grab your trusty foam or massage roller and loosen up those tight spots. "Foam rolling reduces muscle pain and fatigue by increasing blood flow and oxygen to tissue," says Phelps. It's a form of myofascial release, which helps reduce tension and lower risk of overuse and injury, she says.

Sit down and set aside about 15 to 20 minutes. Start slowly and spend more time on areas that are particularly sore or tense to find relief, she says, but don't overdo it, as that can backfire. In fact, foam rolling before or after every workout is an excellent way to keep the body more agile and relaxed in general.

Read more: 8 Amazing Products to Help You Recover After Workouts