Active recovery: how to rebuild muscle after a workout

Active recovery: why moving more while resting is good for rebuilding muscle

Posted by for Wellbeing

The benefits of moving more on your rest day, explained by an expert. 

You might think that what you do on your mat or during your run is the most important part of improving your workout performance. But recovery is just as key to getting stronger, faster or more flexible, so it can’t be neglected if you have workout goals.

Sometimes, those rest days might be all about sitting under a duvet and watching TV. Other times, keeping moving during your relaxation is the best bet for enhanced muscle repair. That’s where active recovery comes in. It might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s actually a scientifically backed principle that can aid muscle recovery and get you back to training.  

What is active recovery?

Don’t worry – active recovery isn’t just a workout in disguise. According to Cristina Chan, face of recovery at fitness studio F45, “active recovery is where you opt for lower intensity exercises to allow your body to recover from the strenuous, higher intensity workouts you have been doing.”

The amount of activity you do during active rest will depend on how much activity your body does during training. For some people, an active rest might be a walk, a yoga session or a swim. For others, such as experienced long-distance runners, “recovery workouts could include a shorter, less demanding jog. The point is that the active recovery workout is less intense than your other workouts, but it still keeps your body moving,” says Cristina.  

The research indicates that the lighter the activity the better. In a 2016 study, “mild active exercise” that triggered the same muscles fatigued during exercise helped to better recover the muscle back to its pre-exercise state than passive recovery. 

Active recovery: a light jog can be beneficial for muscle recovery
Active recovery: a light jog can be beneficial for muscle recovery

How does active recovery work?

You will probably have experienced the stiffness that comes from sitting down or holding one position for a long period of time. When the muscles have already been damaged during the workout, the last thing they need is to be ceasing up like that. Instead, by keeping the muscles moving, you “keep them flexible and help to reduce soreness,” says Cristina.

Research shows that exercise can reduce DOMS by breaking up adhesions in the sore muscles, removing harmful waste build-up and increasing endorphins. Other theories are that by encouraging blood flow and synovial fluid to be directed to the muscles, you deliver more of the nutrients (such as oxygen and glucose) that the muscles need to rebuild. Studies also suggest that active recovery reduces blood lactate – a key indicator of muscle fatigue. 

How often should you do active recovery?

Again, how many recovery days you take will depend entirely on the type and intensity of exercise you do. “I would suggest taking active recovery days at least once a week,” says Cristina. While daily walks and light yoga are a good idea, remember that active rest is just that: rest. You shouldn’t be training every single day.  

“Ultimately, it is important to listen to your body. If you feel injured, in pain, or more tired than usual (mentally or physically), then you should take a day off from exercise and allow your body to completely rest. If none of these circumstances applies and you’re generally sore, active recovery is considered a better option as it benefits your training regime by mixing up your workouts and preventing burnout,” Cristina says.       

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Images: Getty 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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