Rest Day Strategies: Active Recovery vs. Passive Recovery
Take your recovery to the next level! Learn the difference between active and passive recovery, the benefits of each, and how to implement both into your rest days.
The better your recovery, the harder you can train. The harder you can train without exceeding your capacity to recover, the better your results. In my recent article 3 Program Design Principles to Maximize Muscle Recovery, I identified the key principles of program design to maximize the efficiency of your training and recovery. Intelligent program design equals fatigue management. If you manage fatigue, then you are ahead of the game on recovery. Long story short, great recovery begins with great programming.
Great programming only takes you so far though. To maximize your recovery, you need to address other elements. Stress management, sleep, and diet are key factors to consider. On top of this, there are several other factors that can help you to make rest days enhanced recovery days.
Recovery strategies can be broken into active and passive. The recovery methods I’m about to discuss all work. They just don’t work as powerfully as the marketing machine would have you believe. At this stage of the recovery puzzle, you are looking at marginal gains. Not game-changers.
Passive recovery methods are those that focus on stillness and inactivity. 5 main forms of passive recovery include:
A big focus on rest days should be on managing your stress. The body is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which has two branches: the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
The parasympathetic is often referred to as “rest and digest” mode while the sympathetic is “fight or flight” mode. The two work in opposition. Whenever one of them is upregulated, the other is downregulated. On rest days, it is essential that you are predominantly in a parasympathetic state to optimize recovery. The reality is, however, that most of us spend too much time in a sympathetic state. Modern life throws a never-ending stream of stressors in our direction. Some of these might seem minor in isolation, but when added together they accumulate to create chronically high-stress levels. This has multiple negative health implications, with the most pertinent to this article being an acute impaired recovery process. Long-term consequences of being in a sympathetic state include inhibiting our ability to build lean muscle, gain strength, and drop body fat.
There are many approaches to managing stress and finding what works for you is key. The method I see the greatest benefit from for both myself and my clients is calming breathing techniques.
Shallow breathing is a symptom of being in a sympathetic state. This can impair the proper oxygenation of cells, which, in turn, reduces your body’s ability to recover. Simply taking a deep breath in through your nose, holding it for a few seconds, and then exhaling through your mouth can have an incredibly calming effect on your body.
If you want to fast-track your recovery, you can also incorporate some breathing techniques immediately post-workout. This will help you switch from the “fight or flight” mode required to train hard and into the restorative “rest and digest” mode. This strategy instantly reduces stress levels, promotes the oxygenation of cells, and can allow the recovery processes to ramp up quickly. If you train, in the evening it will also help you to relax and get to sleep.
I suggest you take a proactive approach to breathing as a stress management tool by doing it daily. Post-workout is great, but utilizing breathing techniques on rest days too can also yield significant improvements in recovery.
Minimizing stress through meditation is a phenomenal way to improve brain health, well-being, and promote recovery from hard training.
I am also aware that the word meditation conjures negative connotations with some people. I am guilty of those same feelings. I somehow can’t help but associate it as a method used by older, hippier, more spiritual people than me. While I struggle with the name meditation, I do recognize the benefits of getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and calming my mind for 5-10 minutes a day. So, if you’re like me and not quite prepared to meditate, call it mindfulness, sitting in silence, focusing on my breath, being still, chillaxing, or whatever you’re comfortable with.
My version is to sit quietly and focus on my breath for a couple of minutes. “Belly breathing” with deep breaths in through the nose and slow exhalations out through my mouth works wonders for me.
If you want a more strategic approach to try and incorporate meditation into your routine I’d suggest following some guided meditations. I have experimented with the Headspace app and think it’s a valuable tool. I have followed some of their 5-10 minute guided meditations and it certainly chilled me out. These few minutes every day will have a remarkable effect on managing your stress levels.
Hydration is certainly an important factor to consider in your overall training performance and recovery. Drinking adequate amounts of water is critical to your health, energy levels, gym performance, and recovery.
I bet you know hydration is important, and I bet you are aware of your hydration during workouts. I’m also willing to wager you are less focused on it the rest of the time.
Increasing your awareness of hydration status, the other 23 hours of training days, and on rest days can have a large influence on recovery status. The human body about 60% water, so it should be fairly obvious that staying well hydrated is important.
Water aids all of our bodily functions. Amongst other things, optimal hydration levels allow for proper digestion, efficient nutrient uptake, oxygen delivery, temperature regulation, hormone production, and lower levels of strain on the heart. All of these factors play a part in training and recovery.
The simplest way to check your hydration status is to look at your pee. If it is clear to a pale straw color, you are well hydrated. The darker your pee, the less well hydrated you are.
A good target to shoot for is 0.04 liters per kilogram of bodyweight. For a 100kg (220lbs) person that is 4 litres per day (100 x 0.04 = 4). 4 litres are 135 fluid ounces. Your exact needs will depend on other factors like activity level, rate of perspiration, and ambient temperature. Begin with the 0.04 liters per KG recommendation and adjust as needed.
This is a bit of a cheat because I covered the importance of sleep for your recovery in my previous article, 3 Program Design Principles to Maximize Muscle Recovery. That was focused on improving the quantity and quality of your sleep overnight. Supplementing your nighttime sleep with naps can also be beneficial and enhance recovery.
It is important to note that while napping can be helpful at getting quality sleep and improving recovery, it should not replace sound sleep patterns. Make getting a good night’s sleep your top priority. Then to optimize recovery, utilize napping. When napping it is best not to do it too close to your normal bedtime. Napping late in the day can disrupt your sleep during the night and become a false economy. Generally, late morning or early afternoon naps work very well to improve recovery without impacting your normal sleep routine.
Keep the naps short. Taking 20-30 minute naps can help increase recovery and mental cognition. Napping for too long could result in sleep insomnia. The risk of this increases if you nap for longer than 30 minutes or late in the day.
While there is some evidence to support the physiological benefits of massage, the real benefits appear more psychological. Relaxation plays a significant role in managing your stress and can boost your recovery and adaptation.
With the knowledge that the relaxation effects are probably the most potent for massage, it means that deep tissue sports massage may not be the best approach. Anyone who has had a deep tissue sports massage knows they can be very uncomfortable and anything but relaxing. This negates the major benefit of massage. Thus, a gentler approach may actually be more beneficial for recovery.
Active recovery methods require you to be active in a way that promotes recovery rather than intensity. 3 main forms of passive recovery include:
Do No Harm
The first rule of active rest days is a bit like the doctors’ hippocratic oath, “First, do no harm”. Tons of people fail to follow this rule. They turn rest days or active recovery days into full-blown workouts. Instead of improving recovery, they just create more fatigue and harm their recovery.
It’s vital you keep your goals front and center on rest days. The recovery and adaptation timeframe for muscles extends across a couple of days. Just because you trained it yesterday it doesn’t mean it’s still not recovering and adapting today. So, avoid doing things that could interfere with this recovery process on rest days. With that warning out of the way, it’s time to move onto some active recovery methods that can accelerate your recovery.
Light Training Days
Lighter training days can potentially improve recovery time more than a complete rest day. A lighter day is defined by systematic decreases in training volume and/or intensity. Technically, light days are part of your training program and fall under “great programming allowing for great recovery”, but since they are largely ignored I think it’s worth discussing them here.
Light days really excel when your goals are strength or power-focused. In these circumstances, lighter days are extremely beneficial. They allow you to increase the frequency with which you train technique-dominant lifts (e.g., cleans and snatches). Lighter days allow you to train the technique component of the lift at lower loads so fatigue is minimal. This means you can get the benefit of skill acquisition but still allow for recovery and adaptation.
When it comes to bodybuilding goals, I think lighter days can have utility but, the application is different to strength or power development. In this instance, I tend to use “light” days as days when smaller muscle groups that generate less overall fatigue make up a workout. For example, a calves and abs workout. I have found this works well to manage the total training stress across a week. This means a lifter can get a productive workout in without interfering with recovery from other sessions.
Active Recovery Days
Active recovery days are quite risky. They certainly can enhance recovery but, as I mentioned earlier, most dedicated lifters struggle and turn them into full-blown workouts. If you succumb to this temptation, you slow down your recovery rather than improve it. from your normal workouts. You need to be honest with yourself about this. If you cannot resist temptation stay out of the gym, do nothing, take a full rest day. You will be better served to put your feet up for a day than turning active recovery into a brutal workout to satisfy your stimulus junkie tendencies. If on the other hand, you can follow the plan for your recovery day then, it might just improve your overall recovery.
A recovery day increases blood flow and alleviates psychological stress. It allows your body to slowly release the built-up lactic acid and minimize post-exercise stiffness. It promotes blood flow to your joints and muscles, reducing inflammation. These can all boost the recovery and adaptation process. Low-intensity activities are good for recovery days.
Related: 3 Simple Recovery Methods to Train Harder Than Ever Before
A favorite strategy of mine is simply to get outside for a brisk 20-minute walk. Walking increases blood flow and will aid recovery especially to your legs, but is low enough intensity it does not interfere with recovery from prior training or performance in subsequent sessions.
If you want to do some cardio on a rest day it is best to keep it light and make it enjoyable. Love riding your bike? Get out for a gentle ride. Like swimming? Get in the pool for some leisurely lengths. Enjoy hiking? Follow an east trail and keep the total distance short. An upper limit of a 5 out of 10 effort is probably a good rule to live by. You should feel better for the sessions not exhausted by it.
Yoga is another good strategy for active recovery. It can help mobility. It also can end up having something of a meditative effect as your attention shifts from all your day-to-day stresses. Don’t get competitive and try to impress the instructor or the other participants though. You should finish the session feeling relaxed and invigorated. Forcing yourself into positions you cannot control and contort like a sweaty pretzel probably means you’re pushing too hard. Remember the whole point of this is to improve recovery and performance in the gym. Becoming an advanced-level expert yogi is not.
A whole-body mobility flow is another productive strategy for recovery days. I often have clients use the following routine on days off from lifting:
- Thread the needle
- Hip flexor stretch
- 90/90 stretch
- Glute bridge
- Fire hydrant circles
- Prone cobra
- World’s Greatest Stretch
- Hand walkouts
- Single-leg RDLs
In summary, recovery days can take on many forms. They should involve more general fitness movements at lower intensities than normal training. Recovery day sessions should be lighter and shorter than normal training sessions. They should promote recovery not feel like a workout. When planning an active recovery session, be sure to avoid high-intensity style training, long-duration activity, or new exercises that create increased muscle soreness.
Rest Day Strategies
While there are many rest day strategies that can aid your recovery, none of them will transform your sleep if your training program, diet, and sleep habits are garbage. As long as you realize this and address these factors first you are then in a good place to capitalize upon the recovery strategies I’ve covered in this article. Stacked on top of each other these things can offer the marginal gains needed to take your recovery to the next level.