Active recovery is low intensity exercise that a person performs after higher intensity exercise to improve their recovery and performance.

Recovering after a workout is an essential part of physical fitness. There are two types of recovery: active and passive.

Both recovery methods are important, and people may use one or the other at different points to suit their circumstances.

In this article, we discuss the benefits of active recovery and how it differs from passive recovery. We also explain what precautions to take when performing active recovery to minimize the risk of injury.

a man uses a foam roller to massage his thighs as part of active recoveryShare on Pinterest
Image credit: Boris Jovanovic/Getty Images

Workouts can result in exercise-induced muscle fatigue, in which people find it difficult to use muscles to the same effect as they did before the workout.

Exercise-induced muscle fatigue can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. Active recovery may help prevent a long period of muscle fatigue.

Active recovery simply means that people work muscle groups after exercise, such as by walking or swimming.

People should partake in active recovery after they have finished their exercise. The theory is that active recovery after a workout leads to overall performance improvement.

A 2018 study found that active recovery can benefit people by:

  • reducing lactic acid buildup in the muscles
  • increasing blood flow to muscle tissue
  • removing metabolic waste from the muscles
  • reducing muscle tears and pain

Active recovery is most beneficial when people go at their own pace.

Active recovery describes a person partaking in low intensity activity after a workout.

Passive recovery, on the other hand, refers to resting after an activity. For instance, a person might lie down for several minutes.

Different people may find active recovery or passive recovery more suitable, depending on the type of physical activity they do.

The authors of a 2017 study suggest that passive recovery might be the more useful type of recovery for people who partake in high intensity exercise that is short in duration but repetitive. Unlike active recovery, passive recovery does not reduce phosphocreatine levels, which may affect the performance of these types of workouts.

On the other hand, the same study suggests that active recovery may be more useful for people who do other types of workouts, as it quickly decreases the amount of lactic acid in the muscles, which restores the pH balance in the body.

There are several different types of active recovery.

Rest days

Rest days are the days during which a person does not partake in intense workouts.

However, gentle exercise — such as walking or even flying a kite — increases blood flow to the muscles without the intensity of a workout.

This increase in blood flow is a part of active recovery, and general light physical activity on rest days can improve circulation and aid recovery.

Between interval training sets

Active recovery can also be beneficial during interval training sets.

The American Council on Exercise found that athletes recovered faster by continuing at less than 50% of their maximum efforts between intervals, as this still exercises the muscles and keeps the blood flowing.


Active recovery can be more beneficial than passive recovery when cooling down from a workout.

A 2017 study found that 10 minutes of self-paced active recovery at 50–60% of the athlete’s maximum effort was beneficial.

A person can use various methods and exercises for active recovery, each of which can have different benefits.


Walking is a gentle, light activity that has many benefits.

It does not require any prior knowledge of gym equipment or require a gym membership, making it a straightforward and often cost-free alternative to some other activities.

Going for a brisk walk has the following benefits:

  • improving sleep
  • boosting memory
  • reducing anxiety symptoms


Swimming is a low impact exercise that is a good method of active recovery.

Although it is not usually as low cost as walking, an older study from 2010 found that swimming after exercise improved the performance of athletes the next day.

The researchers suggested that this might have been due, in part, to the water reducing inflammation, helping prevent sore muscles.


Going for a gentle bike ride is another option for active recovery. People can use a stationary bike or go cycling outside.

The main benefit of a light bike ride as active recovery is that it increases blood circulation without challenging any muscles that may be sore or recovering from a prior workout.


Yoga is also a form of active recovery.

Even gentle yoga can have positive effects on the body, helping regulate blood glucose levels, reduce musculoskeletal aches and pains, and improve posture.

The stretching that yoga involves also continues to work the muscles in a gentle way, which will increase blood circulation.

Self-myofascial release with a roam roller

Another form of active recovery is self-massage, or self-myofascial release, which someone can perform with a foam roller.

Some health and fitness experts believe that foam rolling helps reduce tightness, soreness, inflammation, and range of motion.

A 2019 study involving 20 males in good health found that self-myofascial release with a foam roller could be useful in reducing delayed-onset muscle soreness after high intensity interval training (HIIT).

While active recovery may be beneficial in many cases, people should be aware of some precautions.

The most important precaution is to avoid active recovery if a person has a sports injury.

Sports injuries can result from:

  • an accident, such as falling
  • not warming up properly before a workout
  • using the wrong equipment or not using equipment properly
  • a person pushing themselves beyond their capabilities

It is important to stop exercising immediately if there is any pain, as continuing to exercise can lead to further injury and increase the time it takes to recover.

People can treat most minor injuries at home by resting and taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen.

Active recovery can help reduce soreness and tightness after a workout. It might also improve a person’s performance in the long run.

However, if a person has an injury or partakes in workouts involving short, repeated bursts of high intensity exercise, passive recovery might be more beneficial.