One study published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise (1) found that active recovery immediately after the event encourages recovery and reduces muscle lactate levels faster than complete rest. After hard intervals, one group rested completely while a second group exercised at 30 percent intensity between intervals. The active group reduced blood lactate levels faster and could achieve a higher power output throughout the workout.
Another study (2) found that adding low intensity exercise to the rest period after competition did not decrease an athlete’s physical recovery and actually had positive effects on psychological recovery by improving relaxation.
A third study found active recovery encouraged lactic acid removal and and helped speed recovery. (3) The general theory is that low-intensity activity assists blood circulation which, in turn, helps remove lactic acid from the muscle. Low-intensity active recovery appears to significantly reduce accumulated blood lactate and speed muscle recovery. However, all agree that more study is necessary to establish a clear answer regarding the best way to recover from intense exercise.
The Bottom Line
Active rest appears to allow an athlete to physically and psychologically recover from the stresses of training and competing while still maintaining fitness levels. It is becoming a common part of most training plans and appears to offer more benefit than harm. Consider adding a bit of easy, low-intensity exercise to your post-competition recovery plan and see if you feel better faster.