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Active vs. Passive Recovery: What's the Difference?

What To Do on Rest Days

Sporty young woman running. Isolated on white background


Recovering after a workout is just as important as the workout itself, both immediately after and on your rest days. There are two distinct types of workout recovery: active and passive. Active recovery is, well, being active as a way to help your muscles recoup from exercise. As you might guess, passive recovery is the opposite of active. But what exactly do these recovery modes entail, and when should you use them? Keep reading to learn exactly that.

What is Active Recovery?

Active recovery is generally defined as performing low-intensity movement after high-intensity exercise. This catch-all definition doesn’t encompass the fact that everyone has different ideas about what’s considered low-intensity and high-intensity.

An elite athlete might see a 2,000-meter lap swim as a form of active recovery, but for the average person, that’s as much a workout as anything. It’s critical for each individual athlete to determine what low-intensity activity means to them, because doing a workout and calling it “active recovery” won’t facilitate muscle repair.

Active recovery can look like a lot of things, including:

  • Walking at an easy, moderate, or fast pace
  • Jogging at a light pace
  • Hiking an easy or moderate trail
  • Road biking at an easy pace
  • Yoga, stretching, or mobility drills
  • Soft tissue manipulation, including foam rolling, massage, and percussive therapy
  • Other muscle recovery modalities, such as cryotherapy, contrast therapy, or compression therapy 

In recent years, active recovery has become buzzy due to the purported health benefits. Some studies suggest that active recovery is better than passive recovery because these activities promote blood flow, reduce the buildup of toxins from exercise, and can alleviate fatigue and improve mood.

Woman giving a neck massage to a friend with an Ekrin B37 Percussion Massager

What is Passive Recovery? 

Passive recovery is the complete cessation of exercise. The theory behind passive recovery stems from old research that suggested complete lack of physical activity could promote hypertrophy (muscle growth) in between lifting sessions. There’s some logic there: Your muscles do need to rest to grow. But, it’s not exactly smart or healthy to become a couch potato immediately after a workout and stay that way until your next workout.

Is Active or Passive Recovery Better?

No type of workout recovery is inherently better. Both active and passive recovery have their place, and both bring benefits to the table. The key is knowing when to do each one.

In general, active recovery is best performed immediately after exercise as part of a cool-down. This helps your body transition from high-impact and high-intensity exercise back to a resting state. Becoming sedentary abruptly after finishing a workout can contribute to feelings of immobility and soreness.

Implementing active recovery in between intervals has also been shown to improve performance. For example, if you’re running intervals, walk during your rest periods instead of just stopping and standing.

Passive recovery is what makes a rest day a true rest day. On days off from the gym, give yourself permission to do nothing, or at least stick to extremely light activity like stretching and leisurely walking. Soft tissue manipulation (percussive therapy, foam rolling, compression) is also totally fine to do on a rest day.

This isn’t to say you can’t do active recovery on an off day, but make sure to stay in recovery mode—don’t let your active recovery session turn into a full-fledged workout.

What to Do on Your Rest Day

Ultimately, what you do on your recovery days is entirely up to you. Some people like structure; some people like to play it by ear. It’s a good idea to be fluid with your rest days. For example, if you plan an active recovery workout but wake up feeling extremely tired, sore, or weak the morning of, pivot and take a total rest day, knowing that’s what your body truly needs. The goal of a rest day is always to add to your energy reserves, not take away from them.

This article is for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended for use as medical or health advice. For any and all health concerns or conditions, please talk to your doctor.

Written by Ekrin Athletics Staff