If you think working out is only about the number of reps and calories burned, your fitness regimen is missing a key element: active recovery. Active recovery workouts refer to non-strenuous aerobic or physical activity, typically done for about 40 minutes, that allows your body to recover after strenuous exercise and training.
Active recovery is different from passive recovery, which is essentially doing nothing or experiencing a complete rest day—although that is also important. An active recovery workout can take many different forms, including red light therapy sessions, which have been shown to promote innumerable physical benefits.
Below, we’ll go over what active recovery is, active vs passive recovery, and review red light therapy along with six other active recovery exercises to include in your regimen. Then we’ll deep dive into red light therapy and show you how to use it to boost your athletic performance and recovery.
What Does an Active Recovery Workout Achieve?
The benefits of active recovery workouts are many. They address muscle soreness and tightness by reducing built-up toxins, such as the enzymes released by worked-out muscles. Active recovery promotes better blood flow to sore and stiff areas of the body, and prepares you for the next round of exercise.
This was the focus of a 1996 study that was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. The study found that athletes who took a five-minute active recovery between bouts of exercise had lower levels of blood lactate concentration and higher anaerobic power outputs than the control group, which took a five-minute passive recovery between reps.
So what do you risk by not including active recovery into your fitness routine? Denying your body the chance for recovery and repair could result in heightened stress on the bones, muscles, joints, and other systems—all consequences that can negate the positive effects of exercise. Without active recovery sessions, you could be vulnerable to injuries, poor performance, and fatigue, regardless of your fitness level.
Examples of an Active Recovery Workout
If you’re ready to include active recovery in your interval training, after workouts, or on your days off, here are some suggestions to get you started.
Red Light Therapy
If you have not done it yet already, now is the time to list down red light therapy as an active recovery essentials. One of the easiest and most pleasant ways to supplement a recovery session after working out is to engage in red light therapy. Also known as low-level light therapy (LLLT) and photobiomodulation (PBM), red light therapy is a therapeutic method you can do on its own, or in tandem with some of the methods described below. (We’ll talk more about red light therapy in the next section.)
Akin to a massage, self-myofascial release involves using a tool of sorts—like a foam roller or a firm massage ball—to relieve muscle and joint pain. Foam rolling over certain areas of the body may help loosen restrictions and muscle knots, encourage blood flow, and break down adhesions and scar tissue. Self-myofascial release is believed to help make soft tissues more flexible, improve range of joint motion, and reduce pain.
Probably the least resource-intensive and lowest-impact active recovery method is stretching. All you need is slightly comfortable ground to work on (a non-slip mat is ideal) and a few guidelines.
According to an online guide by the American College of Sports Medicine, it’s important to target the major muscle groups by stretching each group at least twice a week for 60 seconds per stretching exercise. In addition to static (i.e., held) stretches, dynamic stretches that involve fluid movement and range of motion are also beneficial.
Most people are at least somewhat familiar with yoga. Stretching is a big part of it, but yoga also emphasizes the mind-body connection through breathing, focus, and sometimes meditation. In addition, yoga incorporates balance, range of motion, and mild strength training, the combination of which can raise your heart rate and get your blood flowing.
There’s a wide range of yoga modalities; some are high-intensity, like Vinyasa and power yoga; and some, like Hatha and restorative yoga, are low-impact and suitable for any fitness level.
A low-intensity, 30-minute bike ride counts as an active recovery day. If you’re a Peloton fan, you’ll notice that some of the program’s high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts incorporate active recovery between intervals. This structure is transferable outdoors as well: Bike hard up a hill or in a sprint, then recover for five or ten minutes. You can also tack on an easy ride directly after a strenuous one, either outdoors or in an exercise studio.
As with biking, swimming provides excellent active recovery options either on active recovery days or between intervals. Swimming is also easy on the joints, which makes it a great low-intensity activity for a day between workouts that may involve running, jumping, or lifting.
Walking or Light Jogging
Both walking and light jogging promote good blood flow throughout the body. You can walk or do an easy jog between sprints, after a long run, or on active recovery days. This is also an ideal way to let your muscles and joints recover.
How Does Red Light Therapy Promote Active Recovery?
Thousands of studies have shown the benefits of red light therapy for treating everything from chronic skin problems to muscle repair. To understand why this therapeutic method is so effective, it helps to know about the science behind it … and that begins with understanding light.
How Red Light Therapy Works
Sunlight shining through a window looks white to the human eye, but it’s actually a spectrum of all the colors that exist. When these colors are combined, the light appears to be white. We talk about light in terms of wavelengths. Wavelengths are measured in nanometers (nm) and vary in size based on color. Violet light, for instance, has the shortest wavelength, whereas red light has the longest.
The term “red light” is often used to refer to both red and near-infrared (NIR) light. The only difference between them is size; red light, for instance, ranges from 630nm to 700nm, whereas NIR wavelengths range from 700nm to 1100 nm.
Red light therapy is the practice of sitting in front of LED lights (usually in a panel or array of panels) and exposing the skin to red and/or NIR wavelengths. This is helpful because Red/NIR light has been shown to stimulate cellular activity in the body, resulting in many health benefits, including increasing collagen production and general pain relief, to name just two.
When you add red light therapy to your fitness routine, you’re plugging into the power of red and NIR light to repair and rejuvenate muscles. Of all the active recovery methods, red light therapy is among the most widely studied. As a result, there’s a large body of research focused on how red light promotes active recovery at a cellular level, as well as from a performance perspective. Find out more about how red light therapy can helps recovery faster.
Markers for Muscle Damage
Red light therapy has proved to have a profound impact on lactic acid and creatine kinase, which are two enzymes related to muscle damage and exercise. Although the word “damage” typically has a negative connotation, it isn’t always bad.
As this article in Medical News Today explains, building muscles relies on a process called muscle hypertrophy; that is, the action of using muscles in a way that breaks down muscle fibers. This “damages” the muscle fibers, thus triggering repairs that result in stronger muscles.
A common byproduct of this process is lactic acid, which tends to build up in the body during a tough workout. While this enzyme isn’t harmful, it can lead to some uncomfortable and even painful sensations following intense workouts—the kind of pain and discomfort that makes you walk gingerly down a flight of stairs, or lower slowly into a chair, or decide the next day that you’re too sore to work out again.
Creatine kinase is also released during muscle hypertrophy, especially really intense bouts of exercise, like a speed workout or speed-strength training. Too much creatine kinase in blood levels suggests that there’s more than just regular muscle hypertrophy going on, and perhaps some inflammation of the muscle.
In a 2016 paper published in a German medical journal, researcher Wilfried Kindermann suggests patients with high blood levels of exercise-induced creatine kinase should take a week-long break in their training regimen.
Red Light Therapy Lessens Impact of Muscle Damage
So how does red light therapy fit into this? A number of studies have shown that following a tough workout, red light therapy leads to a reduction in the amounts of creatine kinase and lactic acid—markers associated with muscle damage.
In a 2006 study published in the Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy, researchers subjected rats to a five-week treadmill program of aerobic training and non-continuous incremental effort tests. Following each session, the test group was given doses of LLLT in various muscle groups.
After the program, the rats were studied. The examination revealed lower blood levels of lactate dehydrogenase (lactic acid) than was found in the control group, which did not receive low-level light therapy.
A similar study of overly exercised rats showed that pre-radiation to the rats’ muscles with LLLT delayed muscle fatigue and lowered post-exercise blood lactate and creatine kinase.
In a 2012 meta-study led by renowned red light therapy expert Michael Hamblin, LLLT was found to reduce muscle damage markers like lactic acid and creatine kinase. In other words, light therapy sessions lessen the measurable impact of muscle damage, which suggests that light therapy contributes to the active recovery of the body post-exercise.
Red Light Therapy Reduces Muscle Fatigue and Promotes Performance
When applied in clinical trials, red light therapy correlates with lessened muscle fatigue and stronger performance. A number of studies have shown this, including one from 2008 that was conducted by researchers from Brazil. They investigated the effects of LLLT on 12 male professional volleyball players performing bicep contractions in a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial.
On the eighth day of the trial, the test group was given LLLT immediately after bicep contractions, while the control group was given placebo therapy. The test group went on to do 8.5 more reps than they had on the first day of the trial, compared with just 2.7 more reps from the control group. The test group also showed slightly higher levels of lactate dehydrogenase than the control group.
At the conclusion of the study, the researchers could see that doses of LLLT seem to delay the onset of muscle fatigue and exhaustion—despite the increase in blood levels of lactic acid.
Incorporating Red Light Therapy into a Workout Routine
Given the promising results of red light therapy vis-à-vis active recovery, how do you incorporate it into your workout routine? There’s a simple answer to that question and a more complex one. Let’s start with the more complex one, which has to do with the wavelengths and timing of red light therapy.
Wavelengths and Timing
A number of studies have compared the effects of red light therapy before and after exercise, as well as whether or not intervals, timing, and irradiance of the light waves matter. A 2016 meta-study co-authored by Hamblin examined a range of results, and the following are some of the conclusions:
- Wavelengths in the NIR range of 808nm to 950nm provided slightly better results than those in the red light range of 630nm to 660 nm. This could be because NIR wavelengths penetrate tissue deeper than red light wavelengths. For that reason, it’s common to see a combination of red and NIR wavelengths used for therapy sessions.
- If you’re using red light therapy for pre-conditioning muscles (before you work out), the window for exactly when to employ the therapy is quite wide. Hamblin suggests anywhere from three to six hours before activity. However, in one 2015 study published in Lasers in Medical Science, Hamblin and his colleagues found that PBM doses given to professional volleyball players just 40 to 60 minutes before the start of each official match were enough to prevent statistically significant muscle damage, as measured by the level of creatine kinase in the bloodstream.
- Studies also show that using LLLT immediately after bouts of exercise can aid with muscle recovery, and lead to potential gains in performance when used in conjunction with weeks’ long exercise training programs.
- However, due to the variables in training regimens, devices on the market, and each person’s individual physique and health profile, there is still no one accepted theory about when and for how long red light therapy achieves optimal active recovery.
Red Light Therapy Activities
The myriad positive results of red light therapy as a method of recovery, as well as its versatility, makes it an ideal addition to any fitness routine. Red light therapy can be done on its own or in conjunction with a low-intensity exercise, whether incorporated into a strenuous workout, directly after one, or even the following day. Here are a few examples of what red light therapy might look like as part of an active recovery workout:
- Setting up a yoga mat in front of red light panels and moving through a 30- or 40-minute flow on an active recovery day;
- Performing a quick stretch in front of red light panels between sets of a HIIT workout;
- Foam rolling in front of red light panels following a strenuous bike ride or run;
- Going for a light jog or walk for 40 minutes on a treadmill, or an easy ride on the stationary bike, in front of red light panels on rest days.
A Customizable Setup for Active Recovery
The setup for PlatinumLED Therapy Lights is totally customizable and depends on your space, budget, and needs. Given the slight preference in research studies for either NIR or mixed red- and NIR wavelengths, it’s best to go with one of the following set-ups for your home gym.
- BIO Series NIR (850nm): offering a deep-penetrating NIR light therapy, available in three different sizes;
- BIO Series Combo Red/NIR (660nm/850nm): mixing red and NIR lights, and available in three different sizes;
- BIOMAX Series: offering powerful, wide-spectrum lights in combinations of red and NIR wavelengths, available in either single sizes or arrays of up to four light panels that connect via a linkable, modular construction.
Consider the options for an active recovery setup with PlatinumLED Therapy Lights and start taking your body’s recovery seriously. Improved performance and rested muscles are just a few of the rewards you can expect from intentional active recovery.