Active Recovery and What an Ideal Rest Day Should Look Like


By, Ashley Tropea – O2X On-Site Specialist


In order to properly train your body, it’s crucial to incorporate periods of rest to continue working at high levels or achieve higher adaptations. Each tissue in the human body has a point of no return where the stress it’s under becomes too much causing it to break down leading to injury and pathology. This rest period gives your body the time to heal micro injuries, remove cellular waste products and excess fluids, and bring nutrients to the tissues. A common misconception many have is assuming that resting or “rest days” should consist of refraining from physical activity entirely, also known as passive recovery. While there is a time and place for passive recovery, there is a better way to maximize the time between heavier training sessions that achieves those goals and prepares your body for the next round. That process is called Active Recovery. 


Active recovery is the act of performing physical activities that require less impact while at a light or moderate intensity, either immediately after a training session or in the following days. The purpose of these sessions are to improve recovery times, support hypertrophy, and prepare for the next round. Your body knows how to recover on its own, but deploying active techniques can help it do the job it’s designed to do, but better. Studies have shown that active recovery increases blood flow to the muscles, but why is that important? For one, that increase in blood flow brings a lot of good things to the muscles to help aid muscle building and the recovery process as a whole. Things like oxygen, amino acids, micronutrients and many others are shuttled to the muscles at a faster rate with light activity than they are with no activity, thus leading to improved hypertrophy and healing. The second reason that an increase in blood flow is beneficial for your recovery is that the increase in fluid helps carry away cellular waste products to be filtered out of the body and disposed of at a faster rate than no activity as well. These waste products are a byproduct of regular cellular function as well as the breakdown of cells from normal muscular contraction. All this being said, performing activities that can improve the flow to your muscles can decrease soreness after a workout.  A great rule of thumb for active recovery is making sure you’re able to hold a conversation and feel refreshed, rather than fatigued, once it’s over. There are two times when active recovery should be deployed: Immediately post training and the following day (preferably both).


Immediately post training:

Right after a heavy training session, often the last thing you’d want to do is to hop back on a bike and pedal for another 5 -10 minutes. Your muscles are fatigued and potentially screaming to give them a break but what if we told you that you’ll be more appreciative after doing it? The goal of this type of session is increasing your blood flow enough to achieve all the benefits stated above, gentle enough to not add any extra stress to already stressed tissues, but also to help aid in stretching and lengthening the muscles you’ve just used. This recovery session shouldn’t be adding to your fatigue, it should be helping you recover from it and allowing you to return to homeostasis. Studies have shown that during days with multiple training sessions, the individuals that perform active recovery immediately after their first session have higher sustained power output and better endurance performance during their second session than their counterparts that only perform passive recovery. Now, these sessions don’t have to be long. It can be as simple as a 10-15 minute light jog at conversational pace, or a gentle 10 minutes on the rower or treadmill followed by a session of foam rolling and stretching to give you the best chance to feel your best later on.


Active recovery day:

With those same basic principles in mind, performing active recovery techniques the following day after a heavy training session or week, can seriously impact your ability to make adaptations and improve your overall quality of life. To break it down, the following day should consist of activity that elevates your heart rate but is a different type of movement than what was performed during the heavy training session. If the training session was weightlifting, try doing an aerobic activity as a recovery workout the next day! Aerobic activities like swimming, cycling, jogging, hiking etc. as well as non aerobic activities like light weight lifting and yoga will provide the best bang for your buck. Sessions should last around 30-45 minutes, but typically depend on how your body feels, make sure to listen to it. During off days, I like to take the dog and go for a hike or trail walk. The uneven surfaces of a trail provide just the right amount of work to help increase my proprioception and build the stabilizing muscles of my core, hips and lower extremities which overall improves their ability to stabilize me while running or weight lifting. This session should be followed by some light mobility exercises to top it all off but make sure to choose an activity that you’ll enjoy! 


All in all, recovery sessions come in many forms but there are other aspects of recovery that are imperative to keep in mind, like nutrition and hydration. Due to the fact that your body breaks muscle cells down throughout the day normally and even faster during workouts, taking in protein helps your body build muscle at a faster rate than it breaks it down leading to hypertrophy. If your body has nothing to build with, the breakdown is faster than the build up leading to atrophy or pathology. Similarly, taking in a regular diet of carbs, healthy fats along with protein and making sure you’re properly hydrated will give you the best chances to achieve the goals you’re training for whether that’s a specific event or just overall health and wellbeing. You can’t build a house without any tools or supplies, right? You also can’t run a car without any gas. Long story short, incorporating approximately 10 minutes of light activity immediately after a training session and approximately 30-45 minutes of it the following day along with proper nutrition and hydration can drastically improve your ability to achieve your fitness goals. 



About O2X On-Site Human Performance Specialist Ashley Tropea:

Ashley is an O2X On-site Human Performance Specialist located at Timberline Construction and Communications in Canton, Massachusetts. Graduating from Bridgewater State University in 2015 with a Bachelors of Science in Athletic training, Ashley went on to spend 5 years working on the sidelines at a local technical high school. While there, she specialized in immediate/emergent response and the prevention, evaluation, and rehabilitation of all injuries that arose within the school’s athletic population. Ashley has worked with orthopedic surgical teams assisting with patient education, wound care, casting/bracing and the application of durable medical equipment. She has also traveled the eastern seaboard providing pre-employment and post injury screens to many different populations including the trucking industry. 


About O2X Human Performance:

O2X Human Performance provides comprehensive, science-backed programs to hundreds of public safety departments, federal agencies, and the military. O2X works with clients to elevate culture, improve mental and physical wellbeing, support healthy lifestyles, and reduce healthcare costs associated with injuries and illnesses. Driven by results and cutting edge research, O2X programs are designed and delivered by a team of Special Operations veterans, high level athletes, and hundreds of leading experts in their respective fields of human performance.