How Applying Active Recovery Gets You A Better Return-On-Exercise

Boost your power and muscular endurance

Walter Adamson
4 min readFeb 19, 2020
Photo by Pocky Lee on Unsplash

Passive recovery — where you do nothing between bursts of activity — is the most common training phenomenon at the gym.

Research shows that you’ll be able to generate more power from your intervals, or more endurance, by using an active recovery protocol.

As I move about my local gym, I’m always surprised at the number of people doing very little. A lot are hooked on the myth of needing “3 minutes between sets”. A lot are just idle sitting on machines.

The reason this catches my attention is that I follow the principle of getting the best Return On Exercise (ROE).

I don’t really want to be at the gym, and when I’m there, I want the most bang for my buck in terms of my objective of living longer better.

I have breaks. But I don’t fritter my time away.

Active recovery increases your power and endurance — research

Active recovery, in this case, meaning active recovery applied during a training routine (not after the completion of a training routine) increases your Return On Exercise.

Research shows that applying active recovery during bouts of intense intervals allows you to generate around 10% more power across all intervals than passive recovery.

Other research showed that runners using active recovery during interval training were able to run for longer after their intervals.

The results were clear: Runners who used active recovery were able to go three times longer than those who used passive recovery the second time they ran. And cyclists who used active recovery were able to maintain their power output the second time around, whereas the power output of cyclists who used passive recovery decreased.

Take your pick — Science or Soulcycle

On the other hand, the promoter of Soulcycle claims that active recovery is better. Soulcycle promotes its use of passive recovery. Personally, I think that’s just a good marketing example of selling people what they want. Most people don’t like active recovery — as I witness weekly in the Spin class I attend.

According to research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, recreational climbers who engaged in active recovery experienced lower lactic acid concentrations, heart rates, and perceived exertion rates(PER) than those who didn’t.

This meant that those climbers could climber harder for longer, thus getting greater improvements than those climbers who recovered passively.

The theory of the benefit of active recovery, in a nutshell, is that after pushing out a hard interval, active recovery:

  • Moves the lactic acid from the muscles to the bloodstream more effectively (stopping activity altogether allows the acid to pool.);
  • Maintains the heart rate at levels more conducive to lactic acid clearance;
  • Promotes blood flow to the joints and muscles, counteracting inflammation.

How to apply active recovery

When doing interval training, active recovery means not becoming completely inactive in-between the intervals.

It’s generally said to keep up activity at about 40-50% of your maximum effort — usually doing the same type of exercise as the intervals. Some studies have shown that the benefits of active recovery — for runners at least — only kick in after 90 seconds.

This could mean jogging in-between sprints or even brisk walking. For stationary cycling, it means peddling with some residual pressure at about 90rpm. For circuit training, it could mean jogging on the spot or around the room.

I do one Spin class a week which incorporates active recovery into a program of interval training. And I run 5km twice a week and in one of those runs I do hill sprints and ramp sprints and stair sprints with active recovery.

For me, active recovery has definitely helped my stamina and my muscular endurance. It’s one of the ways that I built up to running 10km from my regular 5km base.

Active recovery gets me a better Return On Exercise.

I believe that it might do the same for you. Let me know

Good luck.

I’m Walter Adamson. I write about life, health, exercise, life and cognitive fitness to help men and women over 50 live longer better. Get my free, weekly newsletter here. (Relevant to this article — I have a Professional Diploma in Sports Nutrition).

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Walter Adamson

Optimistically curious, 70+ trail runner; 2X cancer; diabetic; Click “FOLLOW” for living longer better tips | My Newsletter 👉