Active Rest vs. Active Recovery?
Active rest is implemented intraworkout between sets on your workout days.
Active recovery is implemented on non-exercise days where you are still doing something active. (not to be confused with “passive” recovery where you are “taking the day off” from all physical activity)
How many times are you waiting on someone on a machine or rack to finish their sets? Maybe you’re doing a circuit and just need to work in? Maybe it’s a Monday and everyone and their mom is trying to start their week off right? Or maybe that person being waited on is you? Instead of wasting time waiting around, let’s talk about a way to maximize your time and spend less time at the gym…
You’ve probably heard of supersets (opposing muscle groups) and/or compound sets (same muscle groups) in order to intensify your workouts, but active rest is different because it is less strenuous.
Some examples of Active Rest
Stretching (specifically the muscle(s) you just worked)
Walking around/to get water
Jump rope/jumping jacks
Jog in place
Other body weight exercises
What’s the point and why should you consider it?
By including intraworkout activities, you can keep your heart rate elevated without the added stimulus to allow the current muscle group(s) you are working to get adequate rest in between sets. This is beneficial for those trying to improve body composition because keeping your heart rate in between 60-80% of you max heart rate burns the highest percentage of calories from fat . You can find a generalized calculator for your heart rate range percentages online or from a fitness tracker. While it must be stated that these are not going to be perfectly accurate and there are MANY more variables that go into fat oxidation percentages, a 20% range is a big enough window for you to get a good idea—give or take. At the bare minimum and possibly the most important point to make is that, by utilizing this strategy regularly, you can increase your intramyocellular mitochondria and overall calories burned during a workout.
Another great reason for active rest when focused specifically on high intensity/maximal effort exercises is the “clearing” of blood lactate. While one study found that swimmers maintained better athletic performance using active versus passive recovery , it must be noted that a certain lactate threshold (60-100%) must be obtained in order for this to be a noticeably effective protocol .
How many days in a row do you exercise? Maybe you take Sundays off? Maybe it’s the whole weekend? Or maybe it’s just whenever you feel like it? (which could turn into a recovery WEEK)
Most people have felt sore or just flat out exhausted the day or two after a hard workout. Sometimes that soreness doesn’t go away until the next time you exercise again. Sometimes we just say “I’ll get back to it tomorrow…”, which turns into the next day, and then the next day, etc.
Some examples of Active Recovery
Going for an evening walk
Hiking or trail running
Yoga/Pilates/Zumba and meditation
Leisurely swimming, tennis, sand volleyball, and other sports
Play outside with your kids, friends, and pets
NO PAIN NO GAIN!… Right?
Most likely, WRONG. While being mentally tough and creating stress stimuli is certainly beneficial and needed to reach your goals and/or break through plateaus, the mindset of #NODAYSOFF or trying to run yourself into the ground could potentially do more harm than good.
Let’s now consider your goals… most people either want performance or appearance. Regardless of the desired outcome, active recovery can benefit both. Think about whenever you get a cut on your skin—you are damaging tissue. But what happens? It will scab over, repair itself over time, and (if the cut is deep enough) leave a raised scar. The same concept can be applied when talking about muscle building. Our bodies are always wanting to reach a level of homeostasis, so when stressors come into play, we have to adapt to get back to that state.
Let’s use a bicep curl as an example. If you pick up a 20lb dumbbell and curl it 10 times, you are stressing your bicep and breaking down that muscle tissue. Your body then says, “I’m not comfortable with this… let’s first repair the damage that was made and then build more muscle so the next time we curl 20lbs for 4 sets of 10 reps, it will be easier and less stressful!” When you exercise, you are making microtears in your muscle cells. These microtears are what tell your body that they need to adapt and build up more. Then after doing that a few times you can increase the weight to maybe 25lbs and the process repeats.
So back to the cut on your skin… how long did it take to heal? Probably depends on the severity of the cut. What happens if you mess with the cut before it’s fully healed? It most likely reopens and takes longer to heal. The same idea is true for your muscle cells—they need adequate time to heal!
When in doubt, bum it out?
Wrong again! You’ve probably heard that it takes 2 days (48 hours) for your muscles to fully recover after a workout. This is typically true depending on how hard your workout was. What about your nervous system though? It needs recovery too.
You have two divisions of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). They are the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest) Whenever you exercise, you are using your sympathetic division and a bunch of reactions occur in your body. Let’s not get bogged down by all the fine details, but simply put, neurotransmitters and hormones are released to do things such as increase heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, mood, and resistance to perceived pain and stress—all amazing things! However, whenever these reactions occur, we are depleting these chemicals and certain vitamins (mainly B vitamins) that need to be restored. While our bodies are efficient and typically quick to restore them, constant stimulation of them day after day can cause CNS fatigue.
This is where active recovery days come into play. In a world where we are going nonstop trying to meet work deadlines and stressing out in big city traffic, we are heavily sympathetic dominated and need to balance it out with some parasympathetic control.
Benefits of Active Recovery
By implementing active recovery days once a week or every other week, you can receive muscular and neurologic benefits. First let’s talk about the muscular ones… when you give your muscles a day break from strenuous routine exercise while remaining active, you are increasing blood flow, pressure, and respiration. By increasing these in MODERATE amounts, you are able to increase the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your recovering muscles without putting the usual strain on them. A study done in 2016 over mountain canoeists and football players looked at the effects of two different methods of active recovery on muscle performance after fatiguing exercise. They found that actively recovering the same muscles that were previously fatigued resulted in the greatest recovery. What was even more interesting is that there was an even more significant difference when comparing both types of active recovery to passive recovery . Simply put, some form of movement for recovery was WAY better than sitting on the couch bumming around!
When it comes to neurological benefits, the focus is more on your mood, stress levels, and overall mental health. You can receive those same benefits without putting as much intensive strain as you would from a normal workout. One study found that just 10 minutes of moderate intensity exercise was able to induce these mood enhancements . By taking a daylong break to actively recover, you can release some of those chemicals without putting the usual intensive stress on the CNS.
 Carey, D. G. (2009, October). Quantifying differences in the “fat burning” zone and the aerobic zone: Implications for training. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19855335
 Mika, A., Oleksy, Ł, Kielnar, R., Wodka-Natkaniec, E., Twardowska, M., Kamiński, K., & Małek, Z. (2016, October). Comparison of Two Different Modes of Active Recovery on Muscles Performance after Fatiguing Exercise in Mountain Canoeist and Football Players. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5051742/
 Hinzpeter, J., Zamorano, Á, Cuzmar, D., Lopez, M., & Burboa, J. (2014, March). Effect of Active Versus Passive Recovery on Performance During Intrameet Swimming Competition. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3931336/
 Menzies, P., Menzies, C., McIntyre, L., Paterson, P., Wilson, J., & Kemi, O. J. (2010, July). Blood lactate clearance during active recovery after an intense running bout depends on the intensity of the active recovery. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20544484
 A new review looks into the optimum exercise intensity, type and duration for boosting mood. (2019, January 03). Retrieved from https://digest.bps.org.uk/2018/12/04/a-new-review-looks-into-the-optimum-exercise-intensity-type-and-duration-for-boosting-mood/