Passive vs active recovery during interval training

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It’s well established that interval training is a great way to improve endurance exercise performance with many coaches putting a lot of thought into the speed, duration and volume of an interval session. However, less thought is often put into the importance of the recoveries between intervals and how this affects the overall intensity of the workout. One ongoing debate is whether the recovery period should consist of passive or active recoveries. The argument often put forward for passive recoveries is that they allow a greater workload to be completed compared with active recoveries – but is this really the case?

Research looking at the effect of active vs passive recoveries

Recent research published in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport (Lopez et al., 2014), looked at the effects of passive or active recovery on 6 x 30seconds cycling sprints. Interestingly, whilst the passive recovery improved sprint performance in the 2nd sprint, it was the active recovery that allowed subjects to better maintain power output in the 5th and 6th sprints. The researchers concluded that the active recovery allowed subjects to better maintain power output, when several sprints are performed.

One factor that appears to be an important consideration, for whether an active or passive recovery is better, is the length of the recovery period. Research looking at the effect of active and passive recoveries on interval performance has tended to show that with short recoveries (25-50s) it may be better to use passive recoveries, whereas active recoveries work better when the recovery length is longer (100-180s) (Brown and Glaister, 2014; Ohya et al., 2013). However, it should be noted that these research articles looked at the effects of active and passive recoveries following short duration intense sprint intervals, which naturally require longer recoveries in order to maintain the interval work rate, whereas with longer lower intensity intervals (e.g. 6 x 1km at 10k pace intervals, or 6 x 5mins at FTP) a shorter active recovery is sufficient to maintain interval work rate, whilst increasing the overall intensity of the workout.

At the end of the day, the choice of active or passive recovery should be determined by the goals of the workout, as well as the sport your training for (e.g. swimming. cycling, running). In swimming, active recoveries are less suitable, for practical reasons, and as such the recovery periods are kept much shorter in order to maintain a higher overall intensity. Active recoveries are almost universally utilised within cycling – regardless of the interval length or intensity – where it is very easy to significantly reduce the work rate during the recovery period. With running, the choice of active or passive recovery, is largely determined by the length of the recovery – If the workout involves short intervals with a short recovery (e.g 12 x 400m off 25-30secs recovery), then a short passive recovery may be best, whereas if your aim is to run longer race pace intervals (e.g. 6 x 1km at 10k pace off a 60-70sec recovery), then an active recovery would be better, as it increases the overall intensity of the workout, and better replicates the physiological demands of the race you are training for.

You can see just how much an active recovery increases the overall intensity of a running interval session in the table below:

Interval session Interval pace Recovery
Active vs passive
Avg pace (inc recovery)
Active vs passive rec
6 x 1km (10k pace) 3:20/km 200m jog (60s) vs rest (60s) 3:34/km vs 4:10/km
5 x 1km (5k pace) 3:12/km 200m jog (90s) vs rest (90s) 3:47/km vs 4:24/km
5 x 1km (3k pace) 3:02/km 400m jog (180s) vs rest (180s) 4:07/km vs 5:07/km

A further consideration is your fitness level/training experience – a less well trained individual may be better suited to a passive recovery whereas a highly trained athlete willl gain greater benefit from an active recovery.

For me I have always found that using intervals with active recoveries has led to greater improvements in endurance performance compared with passive recoveries.

References:

Lopez EI1, Smoliga JM, Zavorsky GS. (2014) The effect of passive versus active recovery on power output over six repeated wingate sprints. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2014 Dec;85(4):519-26. doi: 10.1080/02701367.2014.961055.

Brown J1, Glaister M. (2014) The interactive effects of recovery mode and duration on subsequent repeated sprint performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Mar;28(3):651-60. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a1fe28.

Ohya T, Aramaki Y, Kitagawa K. (2013) Effect of duration of active or passive recovery on performance and muscle oxygenation during intermittent sprint cycling exercise. Int J Sports Med. 2013 Jul;34(7):616-22. doi: 10.1055/s-0032-1331717. Epub 2013 Jan 16.