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Active Recovery: Reduce Fatigue and Enhance Performance

Reading Time: 5 minutes 32 seconds


DATE: 2020-05-11

Whether you are working with an elite athlete or someone exercising for the first time, rest days are important. All clients need a recovery plan, some more than others. Recovery days are where the body grows and adapts to the stress previously applied to it. Intense workouts tax the central nervous system and cause muscular damage. Incorporating a recovery session into regular training sessions can help clients remain consistent with a program.

Depending on the type of client you are working with, it could be challenging to get them to take rest days. Athletes are accustomed to training every day of the week and producing a large amount of lactic acid. Encouraging clients who rather take days off completely is also challenging. You must be able to accommodate strength training programs and active recovery exercises with a client's lifestyle.

As a personal trainer, the goal is to educate clients on why they need to perform active recovery as part of their program. Let's dive deeper into how to keep clients' activity levels up on rest days.

What is Active Recovery?

Active recovery is a form of low-intensity exercise. An active recovery workout often follows a very intense training session. You can use active recovery sessions during a high-intensity interval workout, at the end of a workout, or on a rest day.


During a high-intensity interval workout, there are multiple rest periods, bouts of low-intensity exercise in between sets. They help bring the heart rate down while still performing activity. This is a form of active recovery training.


We know how important a post-workout cool down is in bringing the heart rate down. Clients are still performing physical activity, only at a much lower intensity than the workout itself. This helps regulate body temperature and blood pressure and helps decrease muscle tension.

Rest Day

The most popular form of active recovery is physical activity performed on an entire off day from training. When designing a fitness program for clients, you must implement active recovery training on their rest days. Dedicate only one day of the week to passive or complete rest.

For most clients, this could be after a heavy weight training or interval training workout. For high-level athletes, intense exercise could be after a tournament or competition.

Benefits of Active Recovery

Depending on the client and how their body responds to a workout, most clients experience fatigue following an intense workout. Their muscles may feel tight and sore. Muscle and connective tissue are mainly affected by delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Clients experience DOMS at least a day or two after a workout.

As a personal trainer, you want to avoid training a client so hard that they are immobile the next day. Figuring out how your client responds to the workout load you prescribe is crucial to knowing what type of recovery they need most. The truth is, some clients suffer more than others.

Keeping clients active through a recovery process helps the body maintain blood flow. Adequate blood flow promotes the removal of toxins and dead cells that are present post-workout. Having your client engage in some form of physical activity instead of resting all day can help promote this process.

Active recovery day can also help clients stick to their meal plans. Clients tend to negate the importance of nutrition on off days—they equate a day off from a workout to a day off from their meal plan. By scheduling active recovery on their rest day, you're helping them stay in the mindset of actively working toward their fitness goals.

If they feel like they did some activity they will continue focusing on preparing better food choices. This keeps them on the healthy lifestyle that you have helped them build. Nutrition is just as important, if not more so, on days off from regular training.

Active Recovery Workouts

When determining the type of active recovery to assign a client, always consider their preference and lifestyle schedule.

Low-Intensity Steady State Cardio (LISS)

Low-intensity steady state exercise can be performed through any mode of training. Brisk walking, tai chi, yoga, cycling, swimming, and hiking are just a few options.

The key to active recovery is ensuring clients perform activity with minimal effort. This low-intensity approach can help repair connective tissues and maintain range of motion.

If a client sits all day as recovery, their muscles will become even tighter, leading to pain and discomfort. If they continue moving the body, they will recover much quicker.

Foam Rolling or Massage

Foam rolling or self-myofascial release helps relieve these tight muscles. A foam roller is a great tool to help get rid of fatigue and tightness that intense training brings about. Adding foam rolling into a client's active recovery helps increase blood flow and regulates blood lactate. This helps reduce muscle soreness.

Check out many other foam rolling benefits.

Low-Intensity Weight Training

While it may seem counterintuitive to anyone new to active recovery, weight training is a great option. Use a light dumbbell or kettlebell to have it be more appealing to a client. It isn't meant to hardcore session. Some form of physical activity is better than just passive recovery.

It must be clear that a client's recovery training is to allow the body to move through the motions, not to put more stress. Aim to have the heart rate be at a low to moderate level and the loads utilized to be extremely light, roughly 30-40%. This is to ensure the intensity of the exercise does not cause more harm to the body.

Mobility and Core Training

Athletes who normally train everyday could give you a hard time about not performing intense activity. They feel like they are not getting anything done.

To help with this you can implement mobility training and core workouts on the active recovery days. This will make them feel like they are still training. Clients who have a higher fitness level are the only clients who should do this.

Avoid using machines or weights with clients who want to be in the gym even when they do not have personal training sessions. Aim to work all muscle groups and movements only through these recovery techniques.

Yoga and Stretching

A combination of dynamic and static stretching is beneficial for a client's flexibility. Through yoga and stretching, clients can help reduce the risk of injury and improve performance when returning to regular training sessions.

Yoga helps prime the nervous system for relaxation on off days. It improves mental clarity and posture. Flexibility training is good for limiting muscle tension and soreness.

Passive vs Active Recovery: When Should You Implement?

Passive recovery would be taking the day off completely. As a trainer, it is important to figure out whether a client should take an entire day off or recover through light exercise. This is heavily based on a client's fitness level and ability to recover.

Key questions to consider when thinking through this are:

  1. Does this client report soreness after almost every workout?

  2. Does this client stay on top of their mobility and nutrition plan?

There is a time and place for passive recovery. But the most optimal form of recovery is remaining active. For the best results only use passive recovery once per week. Depending on a client's workout program, active recovery is best between workouts every two to three days.

As a trainer, it is up to you to know when a client needs a break from a workout. Ensure they achieve as little exertion as possible if the answer is yes to both key questions. After long and intense workout cycles this might be necessary. Try to avoid overtraining and look for signs of overreaching.

The last thing you want is for a client to not fully recover and then engage in exercise again. This can cause more damage to the body and set back clients. Implement a combination of active and passive recovery days to be proactive.

Applying the elements of recovery are just as crucial to training programs as the physical activity components. As a Certified Exercise Recovery Specialist, you will deliver a unified approach with clients to get them feeling, looking, and performing their best.

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ISSA | Exercise Recovery Specialist

ISSA's Exercise Recovery Specialization unlocks the science behind recovery techniques. As a Certified Exercise Recovery Specialist, personal trainers can apply this information to their exercise prescription and programs, helping athletes and general fitness clients alike.

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