Active Recovery vs. Passive Recovery: Where's the science?

I think I recently heard Dr. Stephen Seiler say there is no evidence to support the idea that a recovery ride is more beneficial than passive recovery - which I interpret as taking a day off the bike completely vs. say a short ride at zone 1.

But then I see abstracts from the literature that suggest active recovery improves recovery, though typically they are measuring lactate clearance, which I thought was not related to DOMS, muscle growth, etc.

Does anyone know of a study (or body of work) that measures muscle synthesis or other performance-relevant physiological parameters, which compares a recovery ride to passive recovery (i.e. not riding) for the day after an intensity session?

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To my knowledge, I have not seen extensive literature in this area. I am aware of a couple studies (1) (2) that examine glycogen synthesis after active/passive recovery immediately post-exercise. The data from (1) appear to advocate for differences in glycogen concentration from active vs. passive recovery while (2) states there is no difference.

While we can’t necessarily extrapolate this data to what may happen in day-after active vs. passive recovery, it does bring into question the value of active recovery and its role. With exercise performance, there is a big psychological component that is often left out of the conversation. I believe that there can be a psychological benefit to a true active recovery ride that one may believe staves off the stale feeling after a passive recovery day. Yet, there also needs to be consideration of where about in the training cycle active vs. passive recovery days are most valuable. (e.g. sometimes complete rest is needed if there is excess training fatigue, which active recovery would not help with). I think there are different ways to approach this depending on how the athlete feels, unfortunately there is a lack of definitive scientific evidence that promotes one over the other.


Agreed with @gouwaaron in terms of the psychological component. With my athletes I try to really create that empowerment with them when it comes to recovery days, to the point where I’ll ask them straight out, “do you feel like you need a spin or a complete off day today?” in many circumstances. Their psychological state will usually dictate the answer, and then I’m providing support or questioning to help guide them to feel confident about their decision.

With ongoing education and discussions we ideally get to a point where they send a message and make the call themselves. Many times I encourage those light spins during certain blocks because of the good sensations that come with consistent riding. For me, it really comes down to understanding yourself (or your athlete) so you can make the call on active recovery vs. passive based on expectations from the training, from life, etc. and how that recovery period will set the athlete up for success in the next workout, work meeting, and how it fits into the bigger picture. Sorry, no real solid articles to share, but as a broad stroke I put this mostly in the camp of the “art” of coaching.


Thanks for the replies. These make sense. And a lot (maybe most) good riders seem to do recovery rides at least once per week, so maybe there is some “institutional knowledge” there that hasn’t been well quantified in the scientific literature.

The type of recovery you need depends on the system that needs recovery.
If your type IIX muscle are damaged (Exercise Induced Muscle Damage, EIMD) as a result of high-intensity training or strength training, ‘that’ system needs recovery. The recovery is accomplished by giving those fibers a rest (24-72 hours usually). A true rest day can help you with that, but also a workout that does not utilise those fibers → cardio with other muscles groups / long slide ride with a lot of discipline on force production. The advantage of the slow ride is that you continue to improve your aerobic system wel allow the type IIX’s to recover → very efficient use of your time.

If you managed to damage your Type I fibers too (long distance ride until failure), true rest days will help you out. Still, a little bit of movement (walking, very short easy ride) will help you get rid of the soreness, but that is more a ‘feel’ thing than a physiological thing.

When you depleted you muscle energy stores (long ride, not necessarily hard) resulting in that ‘no energy feeling in the legs the next day’, you can do nothing, or a short easy ride followed by a lot of CHO intake (80/90 grams per kg/hour) to speed up replenishment. But you should have done that after the ride that caused the depletion.

When central fatigue kicks in (can’t get HR up / low power output for a given HR / increased rest HR / reduced HRV) a true rest day would be great. But in this case, a workout at 25-50% of normal load/duration could be alright too (do less than your recovery capability in 24 hours).

You see all this with the pro’s: a hard day followed by easy days enables type IIX muscle recovery while continuing to build the aerobic system. When central fatigue hits a given value → 1 day off → repeat.