Active vs. Passive Recovery: Why you need both – Articles

Recovery is a hot topic right now and a lot of members are talking about it. One of the first things I actually teach all of my clients is that they don’t actually get more fit in the gym, they get more fit when they adequately recover from what they did in the gym. The better that you can recover, the more positive stress your body can tolerate, and the more results you can achieve with exercise. However, there are quite a few barriers that can get in the way of this. 

Recovery Barriers 

It doesn’t go as a surprise that our bodies undergo constant stress, and that most of the things we do in life can create stress on the body, beyond just exercise. Some common stresses I see with clients and members result from lack of quality sleep, poor nutrition, elevated psychological stress, illness, or frequent demands from high-effort daily tasks such working a manual labor job, unexpectedly having to change a tire or having to carry a young one around all day.  Overtime, all of these stressors break down our body and take a considerable amount of energy to recover from. When we add exercise into the mix, it can often increase levels of fatigue and decrease the results we get from working out. 

In order for the body to positively adapt (i.e. get stronger, increase endurance and build more muscle) it must undergo a variety of recovery techniques, some of which start with incorporating healthier daily habits into your routine. 

Foundational lifestyle habits for recovery 

Before someone even steps foot in the club, it’s important to do a gut check to see how they’re managing daily stressors and what their nutrition, hydration and sleep habits look like. I meet with tons of members who, based on their current lifestyle habits and stress levels, aren’t in an ideal position to handle the intensity of the workouts they’re currently doing or envision doing. Before we come up with a work out plan, we need to get your body recovering properly. 

Sleep: Sleep is the time when our body repairs and recovers from daily mental and physical stressors. Sufficient sleep is essential for growth hormone production, which we release while we sleep.  Growth hormone is responsible for tissue growth and repair, cell replacement, brain function, vitality, energy, and fat utilization. 

Balanced Eating: A balanced eating plan should include lean protein, healthy fat and carbohydrates.inflammation-promoting foods should be avoided as they can cause connective tissue to become much more rigid and more prone to injury. Getting ample Protein is also important because it’s essential to help muscle recovery and is something we need to replenish often as our bodies don’t store it like we do with fats and carbohydrates. 

Hydration: Aim to drink at least half of your body weight in ounces of water. Lack of water can cause joints to be less lubricated and muscle tightness to increase. Plus being dehydrated by a mere 1.5% can actually cause a decrease of up to 10% in strength.

Signs you aren’t optimally recovering from exercise 

When sleep, nutrition and hydration needs aren’t adequately being met, the body’s ability to recover will suffer, especially when it comes to the symptoms someone may experience after working out. While there are some really amazing tools and gear on the market to help better understand stress placed on the body and how recovered a person is, for most of my clients that I work with, simply listening to their body works nice. A few signs I tell my clients to look for include: 

  • General fatigue or lack of energy
  • Increased soreness post exercise
  • Decrease in performance in the gym
  • Increased cravings, especially for sugar or salt

Passive Recovery

Passive recovery is putting your body in a state of rest and relaxation to allow it to rebuild and recover from exercise. This type of recovery is most critical for long-term health and physical performance. It also ensures that your body is given downtime to deregulate and move into the parasympathetic rest and recovery state. 

Mentioned earlier, sleep is one of the most important types of passive recovery and is one of the easiest ways we can support our bodies’ recovery process. Sleep is when your body gets to fully recover from all of the stress of the day and helps increase immune and endocrine function, as well as release larger amounts of growth hormone, which is critical for muscle regeneration. While it may not always be possible, I recommend my clients aim for at least 8 hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep per night. For high-level athletes, 10-11 hours per night during competitive periods due to the increased physical demands. To set yourself up for a restful night sleep, pay attention to your environment and remove any distractions such as light, noise or temperature that may interfere with your sleeping. To help clients prioritize sleep, I challenge them to embrace this motto: “If I’m going to work out tomorrow, I have to earn it through a restful night sleep.” 

Another type of passive recovery is simply reducing or pulling back on the total time or intensity of your training. Known as a “de-load” week, these weeks are critical for long term progress in the gym and could mean taking a few days off or decreasing the weight of a workout. I usually encourage my clients to plan these weeks to when they take a vacation and encourage them to take that time off of the gym and just focus on being active and healthy while away. This works as both a nice mental and physical reset. Other examples of passive recovery include: 

  • Epsom Salt Baths (dissolve 1-2 cups of Epsom salt in a warm bath and soak for 20-30 minutes)
  • Deep Breathing
  • Meditation
  • Journaling 

Active Recovery

Active recovery is using low intensity exercise or movement to help reduce soreness and improve the body’s ability to recover from exercise faster. By moving more, you help increase circulation, mobilize bodily fluids, send in oxygen-rich red blood cells and tell the metabolic waste to move on out. Picking 1-2 methods to use post-workout or on your off days can really help accelerate your progress in the gym. 

Some nice examples of active recovery that increase circulation, blood flow and metabolic recovery include:

  • Deliberate walking or low intensity cardio staying in Zone 1 or below
  • Light Swimming
  • Bodyweight exercise circuits with lower rep ranges staying away from muscular fatigue
  • Lower intensity Yoga classes like Root or Surrender
  • Massage
  • Stretching
  • Self-myofascial techniques using a Hyperice Viper or Foam Roller
  • Normatec Compression Sleeves

With active recovery, it’s important to emphasize that none of these techniques can replace a solid base of healthy lifestyle choices and a balanced exercise program. 

Putting Recovery to Use

If you’re looking for ways to incorporate healthier lifestyles habits and recovery techniques into your routine, I’ve mapped out a few example plans to help you get started. 


Plan 1 – Recovery Goal:

Re-establish healthier lifestyle habits and minimize stress through healthier sleeping habits, low-intensity exercise and high passive recovery, incorporating active recovery. 

Plan 2 – Recovery Goal:
Maintain exercise routine (x3 per week of high-intensity training) and healthy lifestyle habits, maintaining adequate passive recovery methods and incorporating active recovery as needed.

Plan 3 – Recovery Goal:
Maintain exercise routine (x4 per week of high-intensity training) and healthy lifestyle habits, maintaining adequate passive recovery methods and sufficient active recovery. 

Written by Danny King – Life Time Manager, Team Member Development

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.