Active vs. Passive Recovery: Which One Is Better for You?

The right kind of recovery can make a huge difference when it comes to your next workout.

By PelotonUpdated December 7, 2023


When it comes time for a rest day, you might be wondering exactly which kind of resting to do. There are two main types of recovery: active and passive. Choosing between active vs. passive recovery can be confusing. While we talk a lot about recovery before, during, and after workouts, how do you know if you’re recovering correctly for what your body needs? 

We went straight to the experts—Peloton instructors Leanne Hainsby and Matty Maggiacomo—to break down active recovery vs. passive rest and explain how each type will help your body.

What Is Active Recovery?

Leanne defines active recovery as “being active in a way that supports your body’s recovery. It is lighter and less physically intense than your regular workout,” and you can incorporate it either during or after exercise. Think of it as a low-intensity effort for the purpose of loosening muscles and breaking up soreness.

You may have encountered active recovery intervals during an indoor cycling workout, for example. “Rather than stopping between intervals, we instruct Members to maintain the activity at a ‘base’ cadence/resistance,” Leanne says. 

Benefits of Active Recovery

Mid-workout, the purpose of this active recovery interval is to flush the body of lactic acid and hydrogen ions, which damage and fatigue the muscles. Active recovery is often an important part of the cooldown phase as well.

Post-workout active recovery—either immediately following exercise or on its own day—can reduce inflammation and stiffness and can also help clear the lactic acid buildup in your muscles.

Examples of Active Recovery

You may want to incorporate active recovery on the days after intense training too. “The activity you choose on an active recovery day can depend on your personal preference, type of training, and mood. Alongside a low impact ride, you could get yourself outside for a walk, go swimming, or I find yoga/pilates a perfect low-intensity workout for the mind, body, and soul,” Leanne says. 

Active recovery doesn’t have to be a formal workout though. “I like to blend my active recovery days with spending time with family and friends. Taking my niece and nephew for a walk in the park or swimming is usually a great way to get a low impact workout in for myself (sometimes without even realizing) and it happens to be great fun too,” says Leanne. “Listen to your body, find a way to calm the mind, and reset for your next high-intensity day of training.”

When to Choose Active Recovery

“Active recovery is most critical for athletes after a race, such as a marathon or a triathlon,” says Leanne. “It’s often one of the most undervalued parts of your training. However, it massively helps to prepare your body for the next race or period of heavy training by promoting blood flow to your joints and muscles to aid recovery.” 

What Is Passive Recovery?

“Passive recovery is exactly what it sounds like: healing that occurs when the body is allowed to rest with no effort or extremely minimal energy output,” Matty says. 

Benefits of Passive Recovery

The counterpart to active recovery, passive recovery allows for the body to recover on its own, without movement as a catalyst.

Examples of Passive Recovery

So what does passive recovery entail? One of Matty’s passive recovery go-tos is myofascial release sports massage, which is a restorative massage to break up muscle soreness and improve joint mobility. “Typically once I have a myofascial release session, I go right to bed after or hang out on the couch for the rest of the night,” he says. 

He’s also been experimenting with a heat treatment called an infrared sauna. “Sitting in the IR for 30-60 minutes allows my central nervous system to relax, warms up my muscles without having to move them, and gives my mind some time to settle and center. I've even used Peloton meditation classes while in session,” Matty says. Other types of massage, cupping, and cryotherapy are popular treatments, but there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe, so ask your doctor or physical therapist what they recommend for you.

When to Choose Passive Recovery

The most common reason for taking a passive recovery interval is injury, but illness and overtraining also call for a true rest day. Symptoms of overtraining like persistent fatigue, decreased performance, and mood swings can all indicate that it’s time for a break. And if your body is busy fighting off germs like a seasonal cold or flu, you should take a full rest to make sure all your energy is directed toward healing (and so you don’t sneeze on your gym neighbor). 

It’s always good to have at least one passive recovery day per week in your routine, regardless of other factors, to make sure your body gets time to rest.

Expert Insights on Passive Recovery

“I try to make one day per week a ‘passive recovery’ day, especially with the constant stressors I place on my body,” says Matty. “Being a Peloton Tread instructor is an extremely physical job, probably more than I could have ever imagined. Now, pair that with my own personal fitness goals (right now I'm trying to gain some size so I've been lifting heavier weights than I've ever lifted in the gym before) plus the added physicality of living in New York City, a city traveled mostly on foot, and one day a week of passive recovery is needed. This is a day when I do not step one foot in the gym or on a Peloton Tread!”

Passive recovery isn’t something you do every day, as fun as it might sound. “That would just be incessant inactivity, and I'm not sure that fits in with your fitness goals,” Matty says. But if you’ve truly never taken a day off from your workouts, you’re probably overdue. 

“The most serious athletes employ some EXTREME passive recovery techniques, as in, not even watching a suspenseful movie or television show so as not to raise their heart rate,” Matty adds. “But I would say passive recovery is most crucial when you start to feel signs of fatigue and to avoid ever toeing the line toward exhaustion, a line you never want to cross. Passive recovery is critical for everyone.”

Active vs. Passive Recovery

The effects of active vs. passive recovery are slightly different, but when used correctly, both can help you maintain your best level of fitness. Remember: The decision to take a recovery day should be based on how you feel, rather than any objective measure of effort. “Listen to your body!” Leanne says. “Self-care isn't selfish.”

Choosing the Best Recovery Strategy

Still wondering which recovery strategy is best for you? There are a few things for you to consider when choosing active or passive recovery.

Factors to Consider

Your best recovery strategy should be informed by your overall workout routine. Some things to consider:

  • How does your body feel? If you’re feeling slightly fatigued but not too much so, active recovery may be your best choice to help your muscles recover. If you’re experiencing any unusual pain or have been injured, you should take a full rest day and consult a healthcare professional to make sure you don’t exacerbate the situation. Or if you’re just feeling extra sore, a day off may be necessary for recovery. 

  • What other workouts have you been doing lately? Active recovery is better after endurance workouts, like a long run, swim, or bike ride; consider doing a lighter version of that same activity. If you’ve been doing a more intense workout like HIIT or heavy lifting, a full recovery might help you more. Also consider how often you’ve been hitting the gym (or track, or pool)—if you can’t remember the last time you weren’t exercising, it might be time to reintroduce yourself to your couch.

  • Check in with your mental state as well. If you’re feeling drained or stressed out by other factors in your life, a day off might help you reset. But if you find long walks or yoga sessions relaxing, that could be equally helpful.

Maximizing Recovery for Enhanced Performance

You can’t perform at your best if you’re running at 100 percent all the time. Pay attention to both your physical and mental status, and make sure you’re tending to your needs outside of the gym as well. Proper nutrition and hydration are key for both your body and mind, as is getting enough sleep. You can also look into techniques like foam rolling and stretching, or even specialized compression garments to make sure you’re tending to your body as best you can.

Want to explore recovery even more? Here are the reasons why you always need a rest day.


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