To effectively answer that question, let’s first examine soreness in a user-friendly way. In general, there are two types:
- That general sense of heaviness or tiredness in muscles that let you know you did something challenging but this feeling is not painful, and does not limit your movements.
- An intense soreness and discomfort during movement that almost makes you regret exercising in the first place. This type of soreness is a sign of severe damage.
Many people—especially people who love intense exercise—mistakenly keep chasing soreness #2, but the soreness described in #1 is the sweet spot of exercise intensity. You can tell you did something valuable, but you still feel good while your body recovers.
One more time, just so we are clear: Soreness #2 = bad. Soreness #1 = good.
Now for recovery.
The day after some spirited sport play or a tough workout, you may rise feeling sluggish and is if your limbs are made of concrete. This is never a good feeling. But you’ll notice that after you’ve been up and moving for a few minutes, you’re feeling a bit better. You may not feel like moving much, but it’s likely a good idea.
Passive recovery involves doing almost nothing and is only warranted in the case of certain types of injury.
Active recovery, however, can include any of the following:
- Massage – either self-massage or professional
- Mobility exercises – moving through a full range of motion, but avoiding long holds as in stretching
- General light physical activity – something in between passive rest and a workout
Whether by the skilled hands of a professional or from using the many terrific tools and methods for self-massage on your own, massage can enhance recovery by increasing circulation. Our bodies are like large skin bags full of water. When we compress a part of the body, we squeeze out “old” fluid that carries the waste products of muscle breakdown. When we release that pressure, fresh blood comes in to deliver the nutrients and warmth to help with repair and rebuilding.
Mobility exercises use the full range of motion around a joint to pump more blood through the muscle. This allows you to enhance blood flow to all the muscles surrounding a joint without overloading any of the muscles because most mobility exercises are simply unloaded or performed using minimal body weight.
The most important type of active recovery is general light physical activity. Because there is a wide range of abilities and current fitness levels among people, defining “light” in clear terms is difficult, but you can think of it as any physical activity that increases circulation without introducing muscular challenge.
For example, take a walk, toss a ball around, go for a light bike ride, kick a ball around, fly a kite—whatever enhances blood flow without bringing a big challenge to the muscles will fulfill the requirements of this type of physical activity.
Side note: Ice baths or contrast water therapy (alternating between cold and warm water) are sometimes employed as a recovery strategy. The research is mixed on the benefits of these strategies, with some studies finding them to help and others finding them to increase soreness perceptions following strenuous exercise. I don’t typically recommend people try these, but if you have tried them and found they work for you, then carry on.
Muscles and joints love circulation. And they really love it when they need more of it. And they need more of it when they are recovering from a challenging workout.
The next time you’re feeling crushed after a hard workout, remember that difference in feeling you get when you awake stiff and then feel better after getting up and moving for a couple of minutes. That simple and common reminder is all you will need to know that a little moving brings the blood and the circulation is what you’re really after—not the soreness.