Active Versus Passive Recovery

A long while back I wrote an article titled The Importance of Rest pointing out that most people train too hard too often and would benefit from more recovery, both in an acute (day to day) and long-term sense.  In that article, in the context of a typical weekly schedule, I suggested that most people would benefit from at least one day completely off per week with perhaps 1-2 others dedicated to what is usually called active recovery or active rest.

In that context, a question I have gotten enough times to make it worth addressing is whether active rest or passive rest is ‘better’.  That is, is it fundamentally better to do something for active recovery or better to just take the day completely off?  Not surprisingly, not even coaches and top athletes can agree on this so today I want to look at both the concept of active and passive rest as well as some potential benefits and drawbacks to each.

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Defining Terms

First some definitions.  Passive rest should be pretty easy to understand, on a passive rest day you do nothing.  No training at all.  Some might allow for something like a brisk walk.  But basically this is a day completely off.  Sit around, do nothing, relax, recover.   I don’t have much else to say about passive rest beyond that for the time being but I’ll come back to it near the end of this article.

In contrast, active rest (aka active recovery) refers to a workout done at a reduced intensity and volume of loading (relative to a normal workout).  So a road cyclist might do an easy 45 minute spin on the bike at a heart rate of 130 beats per minute.  A weightlifter might use a light day of training, at 75% of maximum for sets of 3-5 (noting that 75% of max is a weight you could generally do 10-12 reps to failure with so this is very sub-maximal) as an active rest day.  Fundamentally, active rest is just meant to be a light/easy day.

I actually have some rules of active recovery that I’ll come back to at the end of this piece when I make some recommendations but, basically, an active recovery workout should not be fatiguing at all.  When I have trainees do an active recovery workout, the primary criterion is that they should finish the workout feeling better and fresher than they started.  If they are more tired coming out than going in, they did too much or worked too hard or both.  Again I’ll give specific guidelines at the end of the article.

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The Goal of Active Rest

As coaches and athletes came to the early realization that they couldn’t just train at 100% day-in, day-out without blowing up, the idea of having harder and lighter days came into vogue.  At least in the endurance world, the hard day-easy day approach is usually attributed to Bill Bowerman of Oregon.  Other sports including weightlifting found out early on that alternating harder and easier days helped avoid problems and this eventually evolved into various cycling schemes (including the fairly popular heavy/light/medium approach).

Eventually, this idea was taken a bit further and easy days were taken to be active recovery days.  Even there nobody can seem to agree what the exact purpose of active recovery days are.  In the endurance world, it’s often argued that active recovery days sort of ‘stimulate the metabolic pathways of recovery’ without contributing fatigue; basically it helps you to recover more quickly.

In contrast, others argue that active recovery has no truly active role in hastening recovery, rather it simply doesn’t add training stress (while allowing the athlete to get some light work in) so that the recovery that will take place anyhow can take place.  Essentially, the active recovery is passive in terms of its effects on recovery; for what little sense that makes.  Personally, having trained both ways, I probably tend towards the second interpretation.  I can’t say that easy workouts really seemed to help recovery. Rather they were a way to get in some training, burn a few calories, maybe work out a bit of soreness without adding to the overall stress while recovery from the previous heavy day went about it’s business.

In some sports, it’s often argued that active recovery training helps to repair damage from high-intensity days.  This seems to be the most prevalent in swimming theory where concern about metabolic damage from acidosis (which occurs during high-intensity swim training) can be countered with recovery/regeneration training.  Basically, you repair any damage to things like mitochondria with lots of recovery swimming.  I’m not sure this idea has been adopted by other endurance sports to any great degree.

In the weight room, the same basic arguments could probably be made.  Some would argue that getting a light workout in the weight room (perhaps a Tue or Wed light workout after Monday’s heavy day) pumps some blood through the tissues, helps to remove waste products, etc.  Some advocate drinking a carb/protein drink during this type of training as the increased blood flow from even light training should help to carry nutrients for growth and recovery to the muscles (the same idea can apply to endurance training, as well).  An old idea in bodybuilding was to perform ‘feeder workouts’, high rep light workouts meant to pump blood and nutrients to worked muscles a day or two after a heavier day.

Frankly, I can’t recall seeing any real research on the topic one way or the other; in a practical sense, I’m not sure it matters whether active recovery training is having a direct impact on recovery (hopefully positive) or is simply allowing fatigue to dissipate while getting the person training.   Of more practical relevance are the potential benefits of the training.

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Pros and Cons of Active Rest

I’ve actually already described some of the purported benefits of active recovery above even if nobody can really agree on what active recovery actually does: from actively promoting recovery (by activating metabolic processes) to simply letting recovery happen without adding training stress to regenerating damaged mitochondria or whatever; these are all potential benefits of active recovery.  But there are more.

For sports with a technical component (which is most of them), active recovery can essentially double as a technical workout.  Since the intensity is low, the athlete can focus on some aspect of technique (either to correct or perfect it depending on where they are in their learning process) and do it under conditions where proper performance should be achievable.

While this is generally true for all sports (with a very few exceptions), it’s especially true for sports with a huge ‘feel/groove’ component.  Activities such as the snatch in Olympic lifting or most swimming technique require that athletes keep in touch with them almost daily or they lose their feel for the movement (and the more precise the movement patterns are, the more this tends to be the case).  Doing them for light work on active recovery days allows the athlete to keep their groove; that’s in addition to any extra technical practice benefits that are gained.

I’d note that this assumes that they aren’t so exhausted from the previous day’s workout that proper technique is impossible.  In which case, the potential benefit can become a negative; the athlete is so tired that they ingrain poor technical habits during the recovery workout.  This would be a situation where some sort of non-specific cross training (just to move some blood, etc.) might be a better choice.  After a heavy Olympic lifting day, for example, one of my trainees will often do a light recovery workout with pump work on machines.  It’s non-technical, moves some blood but doesn’t require coordination or mental focus.  She gets the ancillary benefits of some training without having to worry about the technical aspect of training.

But for athletes who can use proper technique during recovery workouts, active recovery is a good way to get in some technical reps and keeping their groove/feel while also getting any other benefits from active recovery (metabolic, recovery, otherwise).

As noted, athletes who sip on a dilute carb/protein drink during active recovery sessions can actually take advantage of increased blood flow to working muscles. Whether for strength/power athletes seeking growth or endurance athletes who need to replace muscle glycogen and resyntheize damaged proteins, that alone can help with recovery whether the training itself has any real benefit.  I’d note that if this is the explicit goal of active recovery sessions, then the primary sport needn’t be practiced. So long as the same muscles that are worked in the main sport are used, the nutrients will be carried where they need to be. So a runner can give his joints a rest by riding a bike or doing something non-impact will still getting increased blood and nutrient flow to fatigued muscles.

As an added potential benefit, athletes who have or are having body composition control issues, active recovery can be a good way to burn some extra calories to help keep body weight or body fat under control. An extra benefit in this regards is actually psychological; simply, some people stick to their diets better on days when they do some activity.  Day’s off invariably turn into a “I didn’t train so I’m not going to worry about good nutrition.” kind of day and an active recovery session may be the only way to keep them from blowing their diet.

I’d note that some athletes simply don’t do well with complete days off.  Some of this is specific to the groove/feel sports I mentioned above but even for other activities, some athletes simply don’t handle complete days off well physiologically.  For whatever reason, and this is highly individual, they come back flat and unable to perform after a day or two completely off.  Back in the day weightlifters and other strength/power athletes such as throwers used to talk about doing ‘tonic’ workouts, basically light days meant to keep their systems ramped up for heavy training days.  Again, this is highly individual but does happen.  The trainee mentioned above is like this, total days off flatten her out for Olympic lifting.  Some sort of activity prevents this.

And that brings me, at last, to the biggest potential con of active recovery days which actually has less to do with the active recovery concept per se and more to do with human nature.  As I mentioned in the definitions section above, the point of an active recovery workout is that it is a light, low-volume workout meant to either promote or allow recovery without causing more fatigue.  But humans often have poor self-control and that’s where I see active recovery going wrong.  All too often trainees go into the gym or start a workout with the intention of it being an active recovery day.  Then they start screwing it up.

If they feel good, they start pushing the intensity and turning it into a workout.  Or, because they figure that there’s no point in driving 20 minutes to the gym, changing clothes, working out for 20 minutes and then going home, they decide to go ahead and do a full workout. Volume increases, they push the intensity just a bit more than they should and they justify it for whatever reason.  And they turn what should be an active recovery session into a workout.

And, as I discussed in Keep the Hard Days Hard and the Easy Days Easy, they end up doing more harm than good.  Rather than ending up alternating a hard workout with an easy or active recovery day, every workout ends up in this middle intensity range because the easy days become so hard that the hard days can’t be hard enough.  In that case, where the person simply has no self-control, the concept of active recovery does more harm than good and they should just stay the hell out of the gym (or stick to nothing more than a brisk walk).  I’ll mention this again when I sum up.

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Pros and Cons of Passive Rest

For the most part, if you take what I wrote above and just reverse it, you have this section.  Honestly, the primary benefit of true passive recovery days (e.g. no training at all or nothing more than brisk walking) is for people with no self-control in the gym.  If you can’t keep the intensity and volume where it should be for active recovery, don’t train at all.  If you’re the type who simply must go hard or not at all, you’re better off staying out of the gym, off the bike, etc.  Or try learning some self-control.

I’d mention that even with the benefits of active recovery, most coaches advocate and most athletes take at least one day per week of complete passive recovery.  This is probably as much mental as anything.  It’s very different to know you have 6 days of training ahead of you and then a day when you can sit around and watch television compared to knowing that you have to train every day for the next 21 or more days straight.  Because anybody can make it through 6 days of training.  And going 21 days without a break tends to just make people lose it.  There’s something about blocking off the training into more manageable chunks that makes it more mentally survivable.

Finally, I’d mention again that for some individuals, complete days off seem to do more harm than good, they flatten out (and this is especially true for high-intensity sports like sprinting and weightlifting) and/or loose their groove and feel.  In that case, active recovery may be the better choice but again with the caveat that it must be kept under control.  In that vein, some Olympic lifters will actually break the ‘one day off per week’ rule and do a very short squat workout on Sunday, otherwise they flatten out between Saturday and Monday. When I say short, I mean short, 30 minutes start to finish if that and light and snappy.

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The Rules of Active Rest

Ok, those are the pros and cons of active and passive recovery, now let’s talk about the rules. I’m going to assume that you’re incorporating active recovery workouts and I’m going to assume that you have the self-control to keep them under control.   Here are the rules of an active recovery workout:

  1. Volume should be 1/2-2/3 of a normal workout.
  2. Intensity should be perhaps 60% maximum heart rate for endurance athletes and up to 75% of 1RM for weight trainers.
  3. You should finish the workout feeling better than you started.

So say you’re an endurance athlete and your normal workout is currently an hour.  An active recovery workout for you might be 30-40 minutes (1/2-2/3rds of your normal volume) at a HR of 120-130 (~60-70% of maximum).  Some will push this up to the very lowest level of aerobic conditioning (130-140 HR for most activities) but even that may be pushing it.  If your typical workout were longer, your active recovery workout might be similarly long.

So if you normally go 2 hours, active recovery is 1 hour to about an hour 20 or so.  If you’re an elite cyclist doing 6 hours/day on the bike, well, first off you’re not reading this site for advice.  But your active recovery workout might be 2-3 hours.  As noted above, some athletes may benefit from doing cross-training activities for active recovery; runners especially can benefit from plugging in non-impact cross-training to give their joints a rest.

For weight trainers, the same basic idea holds although there are more options since intensity can be varied in more ways.  The percentages can either apply to the load on the bar (e.g. work at 60-70/75% of maximum), total reps done relative to maximum or both.  So an Olympic lifter who normally works in the 85-90% range for doubles might do light triples at 70% of maximum for a handful of sets. A powerlifter might do something similar, doubles or triples with 60%-70% of maximum for a few quick sets (almost speed work but don’t even think about using bands or chains).

A second approach is to use a percentage of the heaviest day rather than percentage of maximum; most heavy/light/medium systems work this way.  So if you work to a 5 repetition maximum on Monday in the squat, you might use 75% of that weight on Wednesday for 5 reps as the light day.  If you squatted 200X5 on the heavy day, you’d use 150X5 on the light day.  Alternately. if you were doing sets of 12, you might use the same weight as for a heavy set of 12 but only do 6-8 reps (50-75% of your maximum rep count).

Basically, there are a lot more programming options in the weight room and different people respond to different things relatively better or worse (some prefer to keep the same weight on the bar but do less reps, others prefer lighter weights with the same reps, some do better with lighter weights and less reps) with the only suggestion I can make being that you adhere to rule 3.  If you don’t come out of the weight room feeling better than you went in, you went too heavy.  Keep experimenting until you find the loading that keeps you clicking technically but doesn’t fatigue you.

And let me reiterate point 3 again: ideally you should finish the active recovery workout feeling better than you started.  At very least you should feel no more tired when you’re done.  If you’ve increased your level of fatigue, you went too hard, too long or both.  In which case passive recovery is probably the better choice because you have poor impulse control.

Finally, as noted above, some athletes like to consume a dilute carb/protein drink during active recovery workouts, the increased blood flow from training carries nutrients to worked muscles and can only help with recovery. I’d suggest perhaps 30 grams of carbs with 10-15 grams of a fast digesting protein (e.g. whey or soy) per hour of activity or so.  Enough to get some nutrients to the muscles without consuming so much that you counterbalance the caloric expenditure of the training.

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Summing Up

I was asked once on a forum whether active recovery was better than passive recovery which is what led to this article.  I told the person basically this which sums up this piece “Done properly, active recovery is better than passive recovery under most circumstances.  But if you can’t do active recovery right, passive recovery is better.”