of active recovery on various physiological systems vs. passive recovery in
respect to both endurance and anaerobic exercise.
While the common wisdom from locker room coaches is that a cool down
period after running is beneficial and helps reduce soreness, there has been
little scientific evidence presented by these “trainers” that show what
exactly active recovers (AR) does, how it helps (or hinders) recovery and
performance, and when it should be used. AR is fundamentally different from
passive recovery (PR) in its approach. While PR would be considered sitting,
lying prone or supine, or even just standing, AR is usually light jogging or
walking, or bicycling; upper body AR is sometimes used, especially if the
initial fatiguing exercise involves mostly or entirely upper body muscles.
The effect of AR on lactate has been well documented. The overwhelming
results of the studies were that in both aerobic or endurance exercises2,
4, 6, 12,18, and maximal or anaerobic exercises12, 19, 22, some
form of active recovery showed significant benefits in lactate removal. However,
the effect of lactate removal itself is questionable as to whether it actually
has performance benefits. Studies have shown that high levels of lactate did not
have significant effect on maximum effort performance1, or on series
of exhaustive exercises22. Given the limited number of studies that
actually measured performance in relation to lactate levels, it cannot yet be
said that AR plays no role in performance. Quite to the contrary, despite the
evidence that lactate removal may not play an important role, numerous studies
have shown performance increases due to AR. Performance increases in successive
endurance4, 6, power7, 10, 19, exhaustive exercises22,
and sports exerices9 show that AR does play a significant role in
performance. These findings could be due to the fact that while reduction in the
lactase molecule itself may not increase performance, a normalization of pH
through lactate buffering and removal may be the missing factor influencing
performance. A normalization in pH during AR has been shown in several studies15,
17, 21 to be superior in its effect than PR.
AR has many other benefits over PR besides performance enhancement. A
decrease in the post-exercise Free Fatty Acid (FFA) rise has been observed5,
20. This could be due, in part, to the continued use of FFA for fuel
during the AR. White Blood Cell (WBC) counts are normally lowered during PA
after exercise, and AR has been shown to reduce that drop3, 20.
Several cardio-pulmonary benefits have been observed as well. Heart rate
reduction and venous return from muscles11 are improved with AR. AR
was also shown to not interfere with pulmonary gas kinetics14 after
exercise. Skin blood flow, sweat rate, and thermoregulation have all been
suggested to increase in effectiveness through non-thermoregulatory mechanisms
during AR over similar workloads and periods of recovery time as PR16.
While all of the previously mentioned effects are quite beneficial to
sports and fitness, some effects of AR are a double-edged sword, depending on
the kind of training you perform. Muscle glycogen shows a decrease with AR as
opposed to PR in some studies10, 13. Both of the studies used short
high intensity exercises. For distance runners, sports athletes and individuals
exercising for fitness, this may not outweigh the benefits of AR, but those
individuals looking to add muscle mass would find a negative effect from
decreased glycogen levels. A continued suppression of insulin, perhaps in part
due to glycogen reduction, has also been observed during AR recovery20.
This decreased insulin would have detrimental effects on muscle
Bodybuilders, who are typically not interested in ultra quick recovery from their sessions, or in developing aerobic endurance, would not benefit from AR. Decreased glycogen and decreased insulin levels would add to the already catabolic environment that exists after heavy anaerobic training. Following the Truly Huge Pre-Intra-Post Hypertrophy guide would help combat the detrimental effects of AR if that kind of recovery is to be used. For bodybuilders interested in losing weight, however, AR might have beneficial effects. The sustained FFA utilization would assist in fat loss, as well as the raised cortisol levels. There would be the catabolic effects on the muscles to deal with, though.
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