How to Reduce Soreness With Active Recovery

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
Woman on walk
© McKinsey Jordan / Stocksy United

Rest day: the time where you can put down the weights, hang up your shoes and settle in for a good ol’ fashioned Netflix binge sesh, right? Well, maybe not.  

While recovery is an essential part of a fitness plan (and taking days off to rest or binge TV every now and then is entirely OK), it turns out that switching to active recovery can help reduce soreness and prevent you from getting stuck in a plateau or exercise performance slump, says Dr. Mark Harrast, a sports medicine physician and medical director of the Sports Medicine Center at Husky Stadium.  

Whether you want to play in a recreational sports league or complete a triathlon, adding active recovery to your routine can help you reach your fitness goals. 

What is active recovery?  

Active recovery encompasses various techniques and methods people use to improve their recovery and reduce muscle damage, soreness and fatigue after exercise. 

“Simply put, active recovery is when an athlete is actively working their muscles after exercise versus purely resting or doing passive recovery, like icing your muscles,” Harrast says. 

Active recovery can look different based on your fitness goals and abilities — and it should be done at your own pace, based on what is easy enough to still feel like recovery to you. 

This can mean doing a cooldown after your workout, a lighter training session in-between more strenuous workouts, or a period (two days to a couple of weeks) of less-intense workouts after a major competition, such as a marathon or Ironman.  

Some examples of active recovery and lighter training include going on a walk or an easy hike, swimming in the slow lane, doing a “shake-out” jog, practicing light yoga or doing some stretches. 

“It’s a smart way to work on keeping fitness up but incorporating in recovery at the same time,” Harrast says. 

What are the benefits of active recovery? 

Active recovery is all about helping your body feel better post-workout.  

“The primary concept of training, be it endurance, strength or agility, is to push your body’s cardiovascular system and muscles to a point of strain, but not over the edge into injury. You want to push your body where you will get benefits, and this means some temporary setbacks in body muscle soreness, fatigue and inflammation,” says Harrast.  

Previously, doctors and coaches believed pure rest was the best way to recover from this strain, but now a mix of passive recovery (cold water immersion or compression garments) and active recovery (light movement) is seen as the gold standard for repairing strained and damaged tissue to build back stronger.  

Research shows active recovery increases blood flow to your muscles, which flushes out the cellular byproducts of exercise and can help get your muscles back to their normal physiology so you can get back out and train,” Harrast says.  

In short, active recovery can help reduce soreness and build back muscle.   

What is the best way to add active recovery into your training routine? 

The scientific jury is still out on the optimal duration and amount of exercise for active recovery. However, current research does show that six to 10 minutes of a cooldown (an activity of about 50-60% of your maximum effort) after you work out can help reduce inflammation and muscle breakdown. 

The ambiguity around the ideal amount of active recovery is due in part to the fact that it changes based on your fitness level, what type of training you are doing and if you’re recovering from an injury.  

That said, as a general guideline, Harrast recommends if you’re currently training five to seven days a week, switch one or two of those days to active recovery so you don’t overtrain. If you’re training three to four days a week, adding an additional day or two of active recovery can keep your momentum going. 

As you start to add in active recovery, be sure to check in with yourself to make sure you aren’t overdoing it. The idea is to create a sustainable routine.  

“Again, you’re trying to protect yourself from doing too much,” Harrast says. “Complete rest days can also be important. Listen to your body and take a break when it’s needed.”