You’re probably all familiar with the lactic acid buildup and subsequent muscle soreness that often follows an intense workout. In this post, CERG-researcher Øivind Rognmo discusses the scientific evidence for different approaches to muscle recovery after high-intensity exercise.
How should we best recover from a bout of high-intensity exercise?
The most common view is that performing moderate aerobic exercise (at 60-70% of maximal heart rate) either between exercise bouts or some hours after the exertion provides the best recovery for the next event. Massage is also often carried out with the aim of enhancing recovery. Nevertheless, the jury is still out on the question of whether such active recovery initiatives are effective or not.
Thiriet and colleagues concluded that active recovery has a significant effect on blood lactate elimination kinetics, and that active recovery seems to be beneficial in the preservation of performance during repeated maximal exercise. However, a later Canadian study by Lau et al. concluded that active recovery did not enhance lactate removal or subsequent performance of repeated work bouts in simulated hockey play. Moreover, a Swedish study by Andersson and colleagues investigated the pattern of active and passive recovery in Swedish female soccer player, and found that active recovery had no favorable effects on the recovery pattern of four neuromuscular and three biochemical parameters.
The effect of massage on recovery from high intensity exercise is also debatable. Robertson et al. examined the effects of leg massage compared with passive recovery on lactate clearance, muscular power output, and fatigue characteristics after repeated high intensity cycling exercise, with the conditions before the intervention controlled and standardized. No measurable physiological effects of leg massage were observed on active recovery from high intensity exercise compared to passive recovery, but the study revealed a subsequent effect on fatigue performance. Tschakovsky’s group in Canada tested the hypothesis that one of the ways sports massage aids muscle recovery from exercise is by increasing muscle blood flow to improve lactic acid removal. However, they concluded that the opposite was actually true, as massage impaired La– and H+ removal from muscle after strenuous exercise by mechanically impeding blood flow.
This leaves a bit of a dilemma. Is it worthwhile to expend the extra effort on active recovery, or should you simply save your energy in order to improve your subsequent exercise performance? The scientific literature has addressed this topic for decades but the results remain ambiguous. What is your opinion? Share how you normally recover after high-intensity exercise in the comments!
Written by Øivind Rognmo, Post Doctor at CERG.