We’re going to say something that may surprise you: your recovery after exercise is just as important as the workout itself. Yep - your recovery technique is the reason why sometimes you feel sore after your workout, and other times, you don’t. It affects the post-workout inflammation, the lactic acid build-up in your body, and your injury risk. That’s why when you lie down after your workout, even if it’s from being rightly exhausted, you may be doing your body a massive disservice by not understanding the difference between the two - and choosing the right option for you.
Passive recovery essentially means being still and inactive after exercising. It’s when you finish your run, sit down to rehydrate, and don’t get up. This gives your body the rest it needs to let your muscles repair with minimal effort over the next day.
Active recovery, on the other hand, uses continued movement to recover, with the key being that it is non-strenuous and gentle. The goal here is to keep the heart rate from dropping suddenly, and the blood and lymph flow going, while still giving your body the chance to recover.
Reviewing the current research in 2020, there are cases made for both. The benefits discussed for active recovery focuses on the chemical processes occurring within the body. With the continued blood and lymph flow, metabolic waste is cleared from the body at a faster rate than with rest. Studies showed that when this recovery method was used by runners, they were able to run for three times longer during their next run than those who used passive recovery. When active recovery was used by cyclists, it was found that during their next ride, they maintained their power output, compared to the cyclists who used passive recovery whose power output decreased on their next ride. When examining swimmers, another study showed that active recovery dissipated 68% of the lactate that had accumulated in their blood, and would have otherwise settled in their tissues.
When it comes to passive recovery, it is believed by some to help promote endurance through repetitively accelerating and decelerating their heart rates. It is thought that this type of training may decrease the window of time needed to recover between training sessions. The research on the superior effects of passive recovery is limited, however, some professional cycling programmes have recently incorporated it into their programmes.
While we’re a big fan of active recovery as backed by the evidence, there is a place for both forms of recovery when used appropriately. While using active recovery immediately following exercise can yield significant benefits, taking days off for passive recovery may also be a beneficial way to let your body rest and recover. The key is understanding the benefits of each, so you can make purposeful decisions about what you’re doing after completing your exercise and how you’re cooling down.