There’s a window of opportunity to jump-start your recovery immediately after exercise ends to create the ideal conditions for your body to prepare for the next workout, competition, or other physical exertion. Active recovery is a proactive approach utilizing a variety of techniques that promote rapid regeneration of your body. By focusing on activities to restore tissue quality, you can jump-start preparation for your next outing. Passive recovery involves rest or inactivity after a workout. This can also be looked at as “unplugging.” Sleep, nutrition, and psychological unloading are types of passive recovery. Both active and passive recovery are important for all athletes to improve performance, prevent fatigue, and enhance the athlete’s injury resilience; however, active recovery tends to be the more overlooked of the two. Here are 4 easy ways to enhance your recovery:
1. Light aerobic exercise Light aerobic exercise can aid in slowly returning the heart rate to its resting state and facilitates redistribution of blood from mainly the muscles to a more equal distribution amongst the muscles and other organs of the body, such as the brain and heart. In addition, light aerobic exercise promotes lactic acid shuttling from the muscles, where it builds up during exercise, back to the liver, where the lactic acid is converted to a usable energy source for muscle rebuilding, and further energy expenditure.1,2,3
Immediately after exercise, spend 5-10 minutes doing some easy aerobic work. It’s recommended the exercise not be related to your sport. Cycling, brisk walking, hiking, and swimming are good approaches for light aerobic exercise. Keep the pace light enough that you can have a conversation, but brisk enough that your heart rate rises.
2. Foam Roll/Self-Myofascial Release While you’ll see lots of people doing this before they workout, the best time to restore muscle balance with this self-massage technique is actually after your training session. Spending 10 minutes doing this can improve the tissue quality and integrity, and promote recovery by assist in increasing blood flow to the muscles.1,2 Self-massage can be done with a foam roller, trigger point ball (a lacrosse ball works great for this), or a self-roller massage stick. Work all surfaces of one limb, stopping periodically upon discovery of a muscle spasm or pressure point to knead the knots out by rocking side-to-side for 30-60 seconds and then holding on the pressure point for an additional 30 seconds.1 Gradually work from the furthest point all the way up to your trunk. Go over each limb before the trunk, and then go over the back from hip bones to shoulders.
3. Diaphragmatic breathing Breathing once at rest is often performed incorrectly. During exercise, the body goes into a “fight or flight” response, or sympathetic response, due to the stresses of the exertion. The “emergency breathers” take over, which looks like the chest and shoulders rising and falling rapidly.1 While this is the appropriate response during exercise, this is not the desirable response during rest. At rest, the “rest and digest” system, or parasympathetic nervous system, should be taking the lead.1 The diaphragm takes over, which looks like the stomach rising and falling. It is important to be able to return to a state of “rest and digest” after exercise. When in a state of “fight and flight,” the hormone cortisol is released, and while appropriate during activity, prolonged release of cortisol can wreak havoc on the body.2 Breathing with the diaphragm can return the body to a parasympathetic or “rest and digest” state. This can be performed in any position, but laying on your back with knees bent is a good starting position. Inhale through the nose for 4-6 count, hold for 1-2 count, and exhale through the nose for 10 count.1 Have a hand placed on the belly and a hand placed on the chest. Make sure the belly is rising and falling, while the chest is remaining relatively still.
4. Ice/Compression Hydrotherapy and compression are a transitional stage of recovery that can be a good segway into implementing passive recovery, such as sleep and good nutrition. Icing can be performed on a small, localized area, or can be done for the whole body with an ice bath, or cold plunge. Placing ice on a specific area is beneficial for swelling, redness, inflammation, and pain. A cold plunge can be used for recovery of the autonomic nervous system (think back to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems from diaphragmatic breathing), and decrease overall inflammation in the body.1,6 Ice baths should be around 50 degrees F and done for 6-10minutes.1 A contrasted hot/cold plunge is also recommended due to its superficial pumping effecting of the muscles, resulting in increased blood flow to the muscles.1,2,3 It’s recommended to have a duration in cold approximately 3 minutes and in hot for 3-5 minutes for 4-6 bouts.1 The hot bath is around 100-110 degrees and the cold bath is around 50-55 degrees.1
Compression utilizes the pressure of either a garment, or a machine (ex: Normatec) to flush blood back to the heart. Machines that alternate low and high pressures act as a superficial pump by allowing blood to the extremities before facilitating the return to the heart. Compression is recommended at around 15-17 mmHg.
Active recovery is a simple way to enhance athletic performance, promote recovery and prevent fatigue, and improve resiliency to injury. No extra equipment is necessary, and the benefits reaped are worth the time spent!
Verstegen M, Williams P. Every Day Is Game Day. 1st ed. New York, New York: Penguin Group; 2014.
Zatsiorsky V, Kraemer W. Science And Practice Of Strength Training. 1st ed. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics; 2006.
Viru A. Adaptation In Sports Training. 1st ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press; 1995.
Mabe C. Why Foam Rolling?.; 2017. Available at: http://woodwardcrossfit.com/social/blog/why-foam-rolling. Accessed June 6, 2017.
Spectrum, Inc. Diaphragmatic Breathing (Supine).; 2017. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pNujuDpjIo. Accessed June 6, 2017.
Buchheit M, Peiffer J, Abbiss C, Laursen P. Effect of cold water immersion on postexercise parasympathetic reactivation. AJP: Heart and Circulatory Physiology. 2009;296(2):H421-H427. doi:10.1152/ajpheart.01017.2008.
Sperlich B, Born D-P, Kaskinoro K, Kalliokoski KK, Laaksonen MS (2013) Squeezing the Muscle: Compression Clothing and Muscle Metabolism during Recovery from High Intensity Exercise. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60923. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0060923
Biliard S, Chauveau M, Moscatiello T, Cros F, Ecarnot F, Becker F. Compression Garments and Exercise: No Influence of Pressure Applied. Journal of Sport Science & Medicine. 2013;14(1):75-83. PMCID: PMC4306786.
Clark, N. Inservice: Active Recovery. Belmont University. June 10, 2017.
Brittani Cookinham, PT, DPT, ATC, LAT
Is the Physical Therapy Manager at EXOS, a sports training facility in Frisco, Texas, and a United States Olympic team sports medicine volunteer. She attended Sacred Heart University where she obtained her Bachelors of Science in Athletic Training and her Doctorate in Physical Therapy.