Active Recovery or Passive Recovery – What’s Better?

There are two different ways to recover. A few experts share their take with us.

Recovery is an essential part of any training plan. Using the same muscles over and over without giving them time to rest can lead to overuse injuries, and being sidelined – even if it’s only for a few days – is never fun. Not only that, but making sure you recover properly also ensures that your body can handle more workouts without the risk of overtraining (think: insomnia, fatigue, or dips in performance).

There are two forms of recovery: active and passive. Active recovery involves, well, being active, or low intensity movement like walking between intervals. Passive recovery, on the other hand, involves no activity at all – just letting your body rest. To find out which recovery method works best for runners, we looked at recent research and tapped top experts. Here’s what we found out.

The Case for Active Recovery

According to a recent study from the American Council on Exercise and Western State Colorado University, active recovery done at moderate intensity is best for the performance of endurance athletes.

In the study, researchers had two groups of people either run or cycle at an intensity in which they couldn’t speak until they fatigued. Afterwards, they recovered by either slowing to 50 per cent of their max effort or resting completely.

The results were clear: runners who used active recovery were able to go three times longer than those who used passive recovery the second time they ran. And cyclists who used active recovery were able to maintain their power output the second time around, whereas the power output of cyclists who used passive recovery decreased.

The reason has to do with blood lactate, which is a metabolic by-product produced during high-intensity exercise that fuels your brain, heart, and muscles, according to Lance Dalleck, Ph.D., study author and assistant professor of exercise and sport science at WSCU.

“An active recovery will facilitate better blood flow, and concomitantly bring lactate to these various tissues,” he says.

Additionally, a 2010 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences further supports ACE’s research. “Active recovery after strenuous exercise clears accumulated blood lactate faster than passive recovery in an intensity-dependent manner,” write the study authors.

The Case for Passive Recovery

On the other hand, some experts believe passive recovery is the way to go. SoulCycle, the popular indoor cycling class in the US, just launched a new program called SoulActivate that strategically employs passive recovery.

Janet Fitzgerald, senior master instructor and one of the creators of SoulActivate, describes the class as one that pushes through high-intensity intervals with intentional recovery to train the body’s different energy systems and act as a cross-training component on the bike.

“The moments of passive recovery are backed up against sprint intervals during which the instructor urges riders to stop pedalling completely in order to effectively accelerate and decelerate their heart rates during training,” Fitzgerald says. “During their next sprint, they have the energy to give it 100 percent, and can spike their heart rates back up to the red zone.”

Fitzgerald believes passive recovery is important to endurance athletes because it reduces fatigue, thus enhancing performance. “By repeating this type of training method, athletes will decrease the time window in which they need to recover, ultimately lending to better endurance overall,” she says.

Passive recovery is also helpful if an athlete’s fatigue level is high, both physically and mentally, according to Ray Camano, a triathlon coach. Time off may be the best prescription in these cases, he says.

The Bottom Line

All that said, Fitzgerald believes active recovery is beneficial, too. It just depends on what type of activity you’re doing and its intended result. And Camano agrees. According to him, whether an athlete employs active or passive recovery really depends on factors such as the amount and intensity level of their recent workouts and their ultimate goals.

If you’re doing two workouts in one day, Camano suggests performing the second workout at an active recovery effort. Your recovery effort pace should be one where you can carry on a conversation (or recite the alphabet if you’re alone) without stopping to catch your breath, according to Dalleck.

You can take active recovery days as well. To do so, run at a low intensity or cross-train with low-impact activities such as walking, swimming, or yoga, Camano says. This will revitalise your muscles, allowing you to perform at a higher intensity the following day.

If your training program requires specific heart rate zones that might only be achieved with passive recovery, or if you’re feeling physically and mentally drained or unmotivated after a training block, keep passive recovery in your routine.


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