Monthly Archives: August 2015

Recovery Tools: Active Recovery!

Recovery has become a core factor in every athlete’s training and success. There are many recovery methods which can be employed all targeting different things. Not all methods work well for everyone and people will have their favourite. This is normal as the processes of each method are slightly different. Some things will simply have a better effect on certain individuals than others. One popular and convenient method is active recovery. In terms of effect it appears to be relatively beneficial to everyone.

When we exercise we produce metabolic by-products. These by-products can interfere with muscle contractions and contribute to fatigue. While we exercise we have a system to clear these by-products and consume them. When we stop, the rate of clearance reduces and they can be left to accumulate. Eventually they will be cleared up but at a reduced rate. Some gentle exercise post training can help ensure these metabolites are cleared effectively.

When we do more intense muscle contractions where a lot of force is applied, muscle stiffness can occur. Stiffness is when the fibres fail to fully relax causing a temporary shortening of muscle fibre length. Gentle movement can help break up this tension and reduce stiffness. Active recovery can be quite effective in doing this. The submaximal contractions allow the fibres to relax back to resting tension.

Another mechanism it can influence relates to bloodflow and temperature. In order to repair damaged muscle cells after intense exercise they need a good supply of nutrients. This supply comes from the blood. Increasing bloodflow to tired muscles ensures they get a good supply. In addition increasing local muscle temperature can help the muscle fibres loosen up and restore contractile function. Gentle exercise activates the muscle pump which flushes blood through the muscle as it contracts and relaxes.

These three mechanisms have some quite favorable benefits on getting back to top performance in a short period of time. An important factor and one which many people get wrong is when and how to do active recovery. Active recovery first and foremost should not contribute further to fatigue. Intense exercise is not recovery; it is simply another session. Often people perform hard conditioning instead of resistance training believing it promotes recovery. While some aspects may have a similar effect, the benefits are cancelled out by the increased metabolic and cell stress. A reliable intensity to work at is 50-60% of Heart rate reserve. The session need not be any longer than 30mins to be effective. We recommend low load bearing exercise to reduce any further stress on joints etc. Swimming, crosstrainer and biking are excellent choices.

Deciding when to employ active recovery is also tricky. In most cases we should employ some sort of short active recovery in our warm down procedure. This allows us to clear metabolites immediately after a session as well as stabilizing core temperature in a more gradual manner. Some like to use recovery sessions on their day off. In this case promoting bloodflow and reducing stiffness are the main mechanisms. This scenario is problematic as one must refrain from turning recovery into more conditioning work. While for some, running and rowing may be suitable, many heavier athletes will actually induce more fatigue and joint stress using these exercises. A 5k run is not a recovery session it is aerobic training, while less intense it simply applies a different type of stress.

It is important for athletes to understand the purpose of active recovery and the mechanism by which it works. Just because a session is of lower intensity it does not automatically become recovery work. The sole purpose of active recovery is to promote a restoration to a rested state and therefore maximum performance potential. It has a clear purpose and application. Smart athletes recognize the difference and they reap the rewards of using it effectively.

HIIT, fat loss and muscle!

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a very popular training method. When used correctly it effectively improves cardiovascular conditioning, burns fat and promotes new muscle growth. In addition a relatively short HIIT session is sufficient to elicit substantial performance gains. Like any training method, understanding the basic physiological principles will make a big help to using it effectively. This article will explain a bit about this type of training and some of the pitfalls to watch out for.

HIIT is popular because it is time effective. An individual can burn a lot of calories in a short space of time. As the name implies it is an intense form of exercise. Our energy systems function on a simple mechanism of energy charge. The rate of energy (Adenosine Triphosphate/ATP) utilization in the muscle cell must be matched by an energy supply system. Slow rate of energy expenditure during low intensity work is supported by oxidation. Oxidation supplies a lot of energy but at a slow rate. High intensity work is supplied by the glycolysis and phosphate systems which have a much faster supply. Supply must meet the demand. There is often a slight lag between utilization and supply. This means that even during rest intervals and post exercise energy consumption is still elevated. In simple terms our metabolism is increased and we continue to burn more calories than at normal rest conditions. For this reason even though a 20min session burns, for example 500kcals, energy expenditure is raised throughout the day. A low intensity session lasting one hour may burn 800kcal with minimal elevation in metabolisms for the rest of the day. For this reason HIIT may actually burn more calories on a daily basis. This is why it is so effective at fat burning.

HIIT can also be performed with a strength endurance element, supporting a leaner physique!

HIIT can also be performed with a strength endurance element, supporting a leaner physique!

In addition, the power output which is produced during the work period of HIIT is high. Higher power output during work periods are often effective in improving your conditioning. It also helps maintain strength and power simply by utilizing larger motor units. The main issue to consider with HIIT relates to energy supply. If we cannot supply the cells with adequate energy then they become damaged. This is known as metabolic stress. A certain degree of metabolic stress or damage can be reversed. This is what promotes new muscle growth. Moderate metabolic stress during training can, at times, be quite effective for promoting hypertrophy.

If we place too much stress on the muscle cells the damage can be irreparable. The cells will begin to die. When this happens on a regular basis muscle wastage can occur. It also places the body under larger amounts of general stress which will begin to impact on our immune system. There is a large list of potential health implications that this can eventually lead to.

Preventing this scenario is relatively easy but not always something we think about. One of the determinants to energy supply is our energy store. In the case of HIIT we need adequate stores of glycogen for an adequate supply of energy. If we do HIIT in a fasted state we are putting ourselves under severe metabolic stress, as there is little energy supply to fuel it. In addition the lack of energy will dramatically reduce performance so conditioning benefits may also be lost.

The take home message is this. Fuel up for intense exercise! Low intensity exercise can be done in a fasted state as the oxidative system works effectively to provide fuel. With intense exercise such as HIIT style training, you must have some glycogen stores or glucose in the bloodstream. If you are in a totally fasted, glycogen depleted state then consume some simple sugars close to training. By doing so you can maintain high intensity and reduce cell stress. You will still achieve an elevated metabolism that promotes fat burning. You also place the cells under just enough stress to help promote hypertrophy

It is important to understand training methods as the smallest oversight can cause more harm than good. HIIT is an effective tool but if it is not adequately fuelled it loses a lot of its benefits. It is a popular successful way to train and should be used in any program. Like any training method the process is the important part. It needs to be considered and managed properly in order to see the full benefit.