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Top 7 Active Recovery Workout Ideas

By Pat Koch, CSCS / April 4, 2018

Does “Active Recovery” seem paradoxical to you?

Recovery traditionally implies taking periods of time off from exercise, while activity is just the opposite. Fitness misinformation has generally promoted the idea that activity and recovery are mutually exclusive.

Fitness adages such as, “muscles grow at rest,” or “everyone should take one or two off days,” each week have promoted the idea that regular abstinence from exercise every week is necessary.

On one hand these sayings have helped many recognize the importance of rest and recovery – concepts that over zealous exercisers take for granted.

Yet who is to say that we shouldn’t exercise every day. Trainees can yield benefits from daily exercise: the secret lies behind choosing the right dose of exercise on your “off days.” For those that have respect for governing the dose of exercise, daily exercise is not only possible but can be beneficial. Here, active recovery comes into the equation.

What IS Active Recovery?

Active recovery could be defined as an easier workout compared to your normal routine. Typically this workout would be done on off day from training. Generally an active recovery workout is less intense and has less volume. For example, a trainee worried about body composition goals could do active recovery by taking a brisk walk on an off day.

When defining active recovery, context comes into play. To a marathon runner, jogging at a slow pace on an off day will likely have little impact on their ability to maintain intense workouts on their scheduled training days; in fact, it ultimately may help his fitness goals.

Yet to an unfit person just starting exercise, anything beyond walking for a couple minutes might be a tough workout. The stress added by doing too much to soon might outpace the body’s ability to adapt to exercise. Thus it is important to consider a persons current fitness level when considering what is appropriate for active recovery.

As a general rule, exercise qualifies as active recovery if you feel better after exercising compared to before you started.

Is Active Recovery Beneficial?

Active recovery, opposed to passive recovery (which means complete rest from exercise), may have several distinct advantages. Some believe that active recovery workouts help prime your body’s metabolic pathways of recovery.

Some believe active recovery is idealized, and claim that less intense exercise simply does not add to training stress. This camp argues that light workouts do not stimulate an added benefit to recovery; they simply are easy enough that they do not stop the body from recovering as it would.

Regardless of the mechanism many have seen benefits to including active recovery in their fitness plans. For some, the psychological benefits of active recovery are apparent. Anecdotally, many people feel better when they exercise daily. Movement has the capability to elevate mood among other positive attributes.

A huge point to consider is that some people find it easier to adhere to their diets on days they are active.

Lastly, it is important to note that daily movement provides the opportunity to burn a few extra calories, thus potentially aiding in losing fat.

7 Active Recovery Workout Ideas

There are a few forms of active recovery that are highly convenient and match well with most peoples fitness programs.

The following carry a low risk of injury and agree with most trainees:

  1. Self -Myofascial release (SMR) – Foam rolling is one form of SMR: the objective is to use implements such as foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and other specialty items (the stick, theracane) etc. in an effort to “massage your muscles.” Although the exact mechanisms behind SMR are unclear, consistent foam rolling may improve range of motion, and decrease an over active muscles tone. Foam rolling has allowed thousands of athletes to train at high levels and avoid stiffness that comes with heavy training.

    On your off day, try passing over all major muscle groups with a foam roller. Aim for 30 seconds on each large muscle group, avoiding joints and bony areas. Focus a little extra time on problem areas and pin point troublesome areas by using a lacrosse ball. Monitor your pressure; remember, the goal is to feel better after foam rolling.

  2. Walking – a great thing to do for active recovery. Not only can it burn calories, but also being outside can increase your feelings of well-being. The amount of walking you do on off days should be based on your current fitness level, and your training schedule.
  3. Lighter Weight Lifting – Performing an exercise that made you particularly sore, but using a much lighter weight may be restorative. As a guide, use a weight at or below 30 percent of your usual weight, and perform one set shy of failure.
  4. Hiking – like walking, it can burn significant calories. Once again it must be tailored towards your current fitness level. If you feel worse after the hike then when you started it probably has done more harm than good as far as active recovery sake.
  5. Swimming – particularly low stress due to the weightlessness. You can have a great swimming workout engaging the muscular and cardiovascular system without added pressure on your joints. Take into consideration current fitness level.
  6. Yoga – mobility work can be a form of active recovery that can be done every day. Typically each joint in the body is taken through a safe range of motion. Yoga is an example of mobility work that some people use as active recovery. It can be beneficial if you appreciate your current fitness level and learn from a good instructor.
  7. Cycling – like the other forms of aerobic exercise can be a great active recovery workout, as long as you match the intensity to your current fitness levels.

If You Are Doing Some Active Recovery, Be Smart

One of the biggest problems related to active recovery is that people assume that more exercise will allow them to lose more fat. Whether trainees choose to use active recovery workouts or take full days off, understand that as long as you are on a sensible training program, your eating habits will make a much bigger difference in how you look then a couple extra exercise sessions.

Don’t sell yourself short and over train on days that you should be using active recovery/resting, doing so is a quick way to burn out and ultimately lose steam towards your goals.

Let us know how it goes if you try out one or more of these recovery workout ideas!


  • Russ says:

    Great article! Lots of good info. One thing I like to do, is push ups and crunches in the morning. They wake me up and make me feel healthier throughout the day. Also (I'm not sure of the science behind it) I have found doing push-ups increases my bench press weight/stamina faster than when I am only lifting.

  • Mark K says:

    Pat - Great article. Like the suggestions for keeping moving on the off days and using the foam roller. Also planning to run through my mobility warmup on off days. I'm also trying to move around a bit more on days I lift and stand up more and get out of my chair.

  • uncadonego says:

    My favourite is hiking. Five or six (sometimes seven) times a week, I put on hiking boots and go all the way across the street (ha! ha!) to the conservation area and hike for an hour. I keep my heart in the zone, but more than that is the feeling of being in there itself.

    Hawks' cry overhead, rabbits and squirrels scurry. Chickadees, cardinals, and woodpeckers flit about ahead of me. White-tailed deer bound away and stop and turn to look back. The other day I spotted a twelve point buck.

    When I wish I lived in town for the gym with the track and the pool, I remind myself that I have a great hiking spot.

    If you'd like to see some pictures of some of the things I've seen throughout the seasons across the street, check it out here:


    Active recovery in this case is much more than physical, it's mental and emotional as well.

  • Dana says:

    Congratulations on a well written article with excellent ideas! I do feel better when I exercise daily - even when the exercise is less intense than a typical workout day. My favorite active recovery day includes 30 minutes of yoga and 15-20 minutes of brisk walking. My marathon running friends swear by the foam rolling.

  • Ken Zelez says:

    This is a great article. Self-Myofascial release is excellent for anyone to recover from exercise. The Stick is an excellent tool to use to recover. I also recommend drinking plenty of water and getting some carbs back into the system withing 20 minutes of your workout. Keep up the great posts.

  • Katie says:

    Great article, thanks for all the ideas and the explanation of what counts as active recovery - I've always been confused about how much exercise is advisable on 'days off'.
    Not having a car, I do an average of 30 minutes of brisk walking every day just to get places (including carrying groceries uphill several times a week), which I find really complements my strength training. It also means I don't have to worry about doing that much cardio in the gym and I can focus my efforts there on more efficient workouts.
    I have a foam roller at home but I currently only use it once a week or so - I'm inspired to start using it more after reading this article!

  • Laura says:

    SKLZ has some great recovery products like the foam roller and more. I use the Accupoint Massager almost every day.

  • Seb says:

    Sorry, i mean ah, Pat what about skiing?

  • Martin says:

    Useful information.
    My recoveries became much better after I've started taking Navy Seal Formula. I did not really want to take any supplements but this one is natural and quickly brings me up. I like the effect and I like how my workouts have improved due to this product.

  • Jay says:

    I have a question on the volume of my workouts. I am on a split routine, and usually take atleast 1 day off a week if not 2. My workouts are usually right at 2 hours long, with one major muscle group and one smaller muscle group. I am usually burnt out and sore for about 2 days after my workout, but recovered by the time I work that muscle group again. Am I giving myself enough recovery time? I feel like even though i lift hard for that amount of time, I recover quite well. But overtraining is a fear of mine.