Effects of active recovery on various physiological systems vs. passive recovery in respect to both endurance and anaerobic exercise. 

            While the common wisdom from locker room coaches is that a cool down period after running is beneficial and helps reduce soreness, there has been little scientific evidence presented by these “trainers” that show what exactly active recovers (AR) does, how it helps (or hinders) recovery and performance, and when it should be used. AR is fundamentally different from passive recovery (PR) in its approach. While PR would be considered sitting, lying prone or supine, or even just standing, AR is usually light jogging or walking, or bicycling; upper body AR is sometimes used, especially if the initial fatiguing exercise involves mostly or entirely upper body muscles.  

            The effect of AR on lactate has been well documented. The overwhelming results of the studies were that in both aerobic or endurance exercises2, 4, 6, 12,18, and maximal or anaerobic exercises12, 19, 22, some form of active recovery showed significant benefits in lactate removal. However, the effect of lactate removal itself is questionable as to whether it actually has performance benefits. Studies have shown that high levels of lactate did not have significant effect on maximum effort performance1, or on series of exhaustive exercises22. Given the limited number of studies that actually measured performance in relation to lactate levels, it cannot yet be said that AR plays no role in performance. Quite to the contrary, despite the evidence that lactate removal may not play an important role, numerous studies have shown performance increases due to AR. Performance increases in successive endurance4, 6, power7, 10, 19, exhaustive exercises22, and sports exerices9 show that AR does play a significant role in performance. These findings could be due to the fact that while reduction in the lactase molecule itself may not increase performance, a normalization of pH through lactate buffering and removal may be the missing factor influencing performance. A normalization in pH during AR has been shown in several studies15, 17, 21 to be superior in its effect than PR.  

AR has many other benefits over PR besides performance enhancement. A decrease in the post-exercise Free Fatty Acid (FFA) rise has been observed5, 20. This could be due, in part, to the continued use of FFA for fuel during the AR. White Blood Cell (WBC) counts are normally lowered during PA after exercise, and AR has been shown to reduce that drop3, 20. Several cardio-pulmonary benefits have been observed as well. Heart rate reduction and venous return from muscles11 are improved with AR. AR was also shown to not interfere with pulmonary gas kinetics14 after exercise. Skin blood flow, sweat rate, and thermoregulation have all been suggested to increase in effectiveness through non-thermoregulatory mechanisms during AR over similar workloads and periods of recovery time as PR16.

            While all of the previously mentioned effects are quite beneficial to sports and fitness, some effects of AR are a double-edged sword, depending on the kind of training you perform. Muscle glycogen shows a decrease with AR as opposed to PR in some studies10, 13. Both of the studies used short high intensity exercises. For distance runners, sports athletes and individuals exercising for fitness, this may not outweigh the benefits of AR, but those individuals looking to add muscle mass would find a negative effect from decreased glycogen levels. A continued suppression of insulin, perhaps in part due to glycogen reduction, has also been observed during AR recovery20. This decreased insulin would have detrimental effects on muscle breakdown/synthesis.

Bodybuilders, who are typically not interested in ultra quick recovery from their sessions, or in developing aerobic endurance, would not benefit from AR. Decreased glycogen and decreased insulin levels would add to the already catabolic environment that exists after heavy anaerobic training. Following the Truly Huge Pre-Intra-Post Hypertrophy guide would help combat the detrimental effects of AR if that kind of recovery is to be used. For bodybuilders interested in losing weight, however, AR might have beneficial effects. The sustained FFA utilization would assist in fat loss, as well as the raised cortisol levels. There would be the catabolic effects on the muscles to deal with, though.

Cited Works

 1. Weltman, A., Stamford, B.A., Fulco, C.  A multiple regression model for blood lactate removal in man. Pflugers Archiv: European Journal of Physiology  380 (3)  205-210  1979 

2. Bonen, A., Campbell, C.J., Kirby, R.L., Belcastro, A.N.  A multiple regression model for blood lactate removal in man. Pflugers Archiv: European Journal of Physiology  380 (3) 205-210 1979 

3. Wigernaes, I., Hostmark, A.T., Kierulf, P., Stromme, S.B.  Active recovery reduces the decrease in circulating white blood cells after exercise. International Journal of Sports Medicine  21 (8) 608-612 2000 

4. Monedero, J., Donne, B.  Effect of recovery interventions on lactate removal and subsequent performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine 21 (8) 593-597 2000 

5. Wigerneas, I., Stromme, S.B., Hostmark, A.T.  Active recovery counteracts the post-exercise rise in plasma-free fatty acids. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism 10 (4) 404-414 2000 

6. Watts, P.B., Daggett, M., Gallagher, P., Wilkins, B.  Metabolic response during sport rock climbing and the effects of active versus passive recovery. International Journal of Sports Medicine 21 (3) 185-190 2000 

7. Signorile, J.F., Ingalls, C., Tremblay, L.M.  The effects of active and passive recovery on short-term, high intensity power output. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology 18 (1) 31-42 1993 

8. Peters_Futre, E.M., Noakes, T.D., Raine, R.I., Terblanche, S.E.  Muscle glycogen repletion during active postexercise recovery. The American Journal of Physiology 253 (3 Pt 1) E305-11 1987 

9. Jemni, M., Sands, W.A., Friemel, F., Delamarche, P.  Effect of active and passive recovery on blood lactate and performance during simulated competition in high level gymnasts. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology 28 (2) 240-256 2003 

10. Bogdanis, G.C., Nevill, M.E., Lakomy, H.K., Graham, C.M., Louis, G.  Effects of active recovery on power output during repeated maximal sprint cycling. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 74 (5) 461-469 1996 

11. Takahashi, T., Miyamoto, Y.  Influence of light physical activity on cardiac responses during recovery from exercise in humans. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 77 (4) 305-311 1998 

12. Taoutaou, Z., Granier, P., Mercier, B., Mercier, J., Ahmaidi, S., Prefaut, C.  Lactate kinetics during passive and partially active recovery in endurance and sprint athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 73 (5) 465-470 1996 

13. Choi, D., Cole, K.J., Goodpaster, B.H., Fink, W.J., Costill, D.L.,  Effect of passive and active recovery on the resynthesis of muscle glycogen. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 26 (8) 992-996 1994 

14. Takahashi, T., Niizeki, K., Miyamoto, Y.,  Respiratory responses to passive and active recovery from exercise. Japanese Journal of Physiology 47 (1) 59-65 1997 

15. Sairyo, K., Iwanaga, K., Yoshida, N., Mishiro, T., Terai, T., Sasa, T., Ikata, T.  Effects of active recovery under a decreasing work load following intense muscular exercise on intramuscular energy metabolism. International Journal of Sports Medicine 24 (3) 179-182 2003 

16. Carter, R., Wilson, T.E., Watenpaugh, D.E., Smith, M.L., Crandall, C.G.  Effects of mode of exercise recovery on thermoregulatory and cardiovascular responses. Journal of Applied Physiology: Respiratory, Environmental and Exercise Physiology 93 (6) 1918-1924 2002 

17. Yoshida, T., Watari, H., Tagawa, K.  Effects of active and passive recoveries on splitting of the inorganic phosphate peak determined by 31P-nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Nmr in Biomedicine 9 (1) 13-19 1996 

18. Gupta, S., Goswami, A., Sadhukhan, A.K., Mathur, D.N.,  Comparative study of lactate removal in short term massage of extremities, active recovery and a passive recovery period after supramaximal exercise sessions. International Journal of Sports Medicine 17 (2) 106-110 1996 

19. Ahmaidi, S., Granier, P., Taoutaou, Z., Mercier, J., Dubouchaud, H., Prefaut, C.  Effects of active recovery on plasma lactate and anaerobic power following repeated intensive exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 28 (4) 450-456 1996 

20. Wigernaes, I., Hostmark, A.T., Stromme, S.B., Kierulf, P., Birkeland, K.  Active recovery and post-exercise white blood cell count, free fatty acids, and hormones in endurance athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology 84 (4) 358-366 2001 

21. Sairyo, K., Ikata, T., Takai, H., Iwanaga, K.  Effect of active recovery on intracellular pH following muscle contraction, a 31P-MRS study. The Annals of Physiological Anthropology 12 (3) 173-179 1993 

22. Thiriet, P., Gozal, D., Wouassi, D., Oumarou, T., Gelas, H., Lacour, J.R.  The effect of various recovery modalities on subsequent performance, in consecutive supramaximal exercise. The Journal of Sport Medicine and Physical Fitness 33 (2) 118-129 1993 

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