Can light exercise speed up your recovery?
Anecdotally, I've found that light cardio seems to help myself, and my clients, recover from workouts.
I generally train people using a High/Low system - train hard, or train lightly. No medium days - either it's strenuous or it's easy.* Days off fall into the "easy" days. So does this kind of cardio.
What I have people do is do anywhere from 10-30 minutes of light movement. Enough to get the heart rate up to 120-130, but not higher. Enough to get a little bit of a sweat going, and enough to feel some light effort. But nothing strenuous enough that it's hard to speak, you're huffing and puffing to get air, or your muscles feel significant exertion. At most, you want to be working at around 40% of your maximum resistance, reps, weight, time, etc.
What I typically use:
- light cardio. Any machine or just going out for a walk or a light jog. Go for a bike ride. Stop and smell the roses.
- yoga, especially in a low-intensity class. No "hot yoga" or strenuous work - just moving.
- movement practice (martial arts kata, tai chi, mobility drills)
- light bodyweight exercises (for the already very in shape), done at a slow pace with lots of rest.
- pushing a sled with 20-40% of the usual resistance you use.
The goal is to get more blood flow to the muscles, work very lightly in a full range of motion, and keep moving.
You aren't trying to get stronger, push yourself, or burn fat. If you can't help doing that, it's better to just take the day off. This isn't high-frequency training, it's active recovery.
I've found this seems to reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), over the long haul improve your movement and work capacity, and speed up your recovery. Clients complain less of stiffness. Also, it has the benefit of allowing you to make exercise and movement a daily habit, not just something you do hard a few times a week.
If you tend to be stiff and tired and sore after workouts, try this approach on the day after. It might work for you, too.
* If someone isn't up to a "high" or "hard" workout, I'll drop down the intensity and volume. In that case, it might be a "medium" workout. But I'll precede it and follow it with a light workout day.