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What the experts say

Nigel Hetherington reviews the latest research material relating to coaching, exercise physiology and athletic development.

Understanding muscle recovery rates

A newly developed method for measuring passive length-tension relations of a single human muscle was used to quantify changes in the gastrocnemius's mechanical properties after eccentric exercise[1].

Twelve subjects performed eccentric exercise on the right leg for one hour by walking backwards downhill on a treadmill. Passive ankle torque was measured as the ankle was rotated within its available range, with the knee in eight different angles. Subjects were studied before exercise, one hour after exercise, and 24 hours later, with further measurements at 48 hours and 1 week in a subset of six subjects. Subjects also rated the level of perceived muscle soreness on a 10-point scale during walking on flat ground. Researchers examined passive tension in the gastrocnemius at a standard length before and at various times after exercise.

Muscle tension increased significantly at this length one hour after exercise (34.7 +/- 7.3%), peaked at 24 h (88.4 +/- 12.6%), declined at 48 h (45.5 +/- 4.4%), and returned to the control level at 1 wk. The gastrocnemius's stiffness in the sitting and standing postures (i.e. at short and long lengths) was derived from passive length-tension relations. The stiffness increased after exercise, and the relative changes in muscle stiffness were similar in both positions. There was no apparent correlation between stiffness and subjective reports of muscle soreness during walking.

This study provides the first specific measurements of the increase in the human gastrocnemius's stiffness in vivo after a single bout of eccentric exercise. The increase peaks at 24 hours and is nearly fully resolved within one week.

...and the effect of ambient temperature

A study[2] investigated the thermal strain of active recovery (AR) versus passive recovery (PR) during prolonged, intermittent-sprint exercise characteristic of team sports.

Eight men performed two intermittent-sprint tests in the heat (35C, 44% relative humidity (RH)), with either AR or PR.

No differences were found between conditions for mean work or power per sprint. AR was associated with a significantly higher heart rate (HR), temperature measures for muscle (Tmu), rectal (Tre), body (Tb), and skin (Tsk) after 7, 10, and 25 min, respectively. Body heat storage and heat-strain measures were significantly higher in AR compared with PR. The differences in Tmu and thermoregulatory strain between AR and PR were greater than the differences in Tre and Tb.

These results are attributed to a greater rate of whole-body heat loss during the AR protocol. Because AR has previously been associated with a greater muscle pump, a greater blood flow to surface veins and inactive musculature may have been maintained, allowing greater heat dissipation than during PR, when blood was likely to be pooling in the legs. Despite the greater increase in body temperature and heat strain in AR than in PR, there was no difference in performance, possibly because critical temperature levels were not reached in this study.

Hypoxic training does not improve aerobic or anaerobic performance

Repeated short-term exposures to severe hypoxia, alternated with similar intervals of normoxia, are recommended for performance enhancement in sports. However, scientific evidence for the efficiency of this method is controversial about anaerobic performance. A study was carried out[3] to investigate the effects on both anaerobic and aerobic performance.

During 15 consecutive days, 20 endurance-trained men (VO2 max ~ 60 mLkg-1min-1) were exposed each day to breathing either a gas mixture (11% O2 on days 1-7 and 10% O2 on days 8-15; hypoxia group) or compressed air (control), six times for 6 min, followed by 4 min of breathing room air for a total of six consecutive cycles. Before and after the treatment, an incremental cycle ergometer test to exhaustion and the Wingate anaerobic test were performed.

Hypoxic treatment did not improve peak power or mean power during the Wingate anaerobic test, nor did it affect maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max), maximal power output (Pmax), lactate threshold or levels of heart rate (HR), minute ventilation (VE), oxygen uptake (VO2), or blood lactate concentration at the submaximal workloads during the ergometer test. Maximal lactate concentration after the tests and HRmax and maximal respiratory exchange ratio during the ergometer tests were not significantly different between groups at any time.

The results of this study demonstrated that one hour of intermittent hypoxic exposure for 15 consecutive days does not affect aerobic or anaerobic performance.

Carbs make you feel better and perform better

A study[4] examined the effect of carbohydrate supplementation on differentiated and undifferentiated ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) during prolonged intermittent exercise and recovery.

Twelve male subjects cycled for 2.0 h at 64% Wmax and 73% VO2 peak with 3-min rest intervals interspersed every 10 min (2.6 h of total exercise time, including rest intervals) with placebo (P) or carbohydrate (C) beverages. RPE was assessed during the last minute of each 10-min exercise interval and then every 30 s during the 3-min recovery period.

The pattern of change in RPE over time was significantly different between C and P ingestion, with attenuated RPE responses found for both overall body (O) and legs (L). A significant main effect was found for recovery RPE-O between C and P ingestion, with attenuated RPE responses found in the later part of the 2-h run. C was associated with higher respiratory exchange ratios and plasma levels of glucose and with lower levels of plasma cortisol.

These data indicate that carbohydrate supplementation attenuates perceived exertion during prolonged intermittent exercise and recovery.

Plyometric training improves vertical jump height

A review study[5] investigated the precise effect of plyometric training (PT) on vertical jump height in healthy individuals. Statistical analysis of randomised and non-randomised controlled trials that evaluated the impact of PT on four typical vertical jump height tests was carried out: squat jump (SJ); countermovement jump (CMJ); countermovement jumps with the arm swing (CMJA); and drop jump (DJ). Published data on changes in jump height for the plyometric and control groups were evaluated separately for each type of jump. A total of 26 studies yielding 13 data points for SJ, 19 for CMJ, 14 for CMJA and 7 for DJ met the initial inclusion criteria. The pooled estimate of the effect of PT on vertical jump height was 4.7%, 8.7%, 7.5% and 4.7% for the SJ, CMJ, CMJA and DJ, respectively. PT provides a statistically significant and relevant improvement in vertical jump height. These results justify the application of PT for the development of vertical jump performance in healthy individuals.

Ice baths help performance in the heat

The effects of different preparation procedures (warm-up (WU), pre-cooling (PC), control (C)) on endurance performance in the heat were investigated[6].

20 male subjects completed three treadmill runs to exhaustion (5 days apart). In each session, all subjects performed an incremental running test after WU (20 min at 70% maximum heart rate (HR)), after PC (wearing a cooling vest (0°C–5°C) for 20 min at rest) or without particular preparation (C). After a 5-min break, the exercise protocol commenced at a workload of 9 km/h and was increased by 1 km/h every 5 min until the point of volitional fatigue.

In the PC condition, the running performance (~32.5 min; mean) was significantly higher than in WU (~26.9 min) and in C conditions (~30.3 min). During the first 30 min of testing, HR, tympanic temperature, and skin temperature were significantly lower after PC than after WU. There were no significant differences in lactate concentration; however, there was a trend to lower values after WU.

An ice-cooling vest for 20 min before exercising improved running performance, whereas the 20 min WU procedure had a distinctly detrimental effect. Cooling procedures, including additional parts of the body such as the head and the neck, might further enhance PC measures' effectiveness.

but do not help with recovery.

A study[7] determined if ice-water immersion after eccentric quadriceps exercise minimises the symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

Forty untrained volunteers performed an eccentric loading protocol with their non-dominant leg and were randomised to three 1-min immersions in either ice water (5±1°C) or tepid water (24°C).

Pain and tenderness, swelling (thigh circumference), function (one-legged hop for distance), maximal isometric strength and serum creatine kinase (CK) were recorded at baseline, 24, 48 and 72 h after exercise.

No significant differences were observed between groups concerning changes in most pain parameters, tenderness, isometric strength, swelling, hop-for-distance or serum CK over time. There was a significant difference in pain on sit-to-stand at 24 hours, with the intervention group demonstrating a greater increase in pain than the control group. The ice-water immersion protocol used in this study was ineffectual in minimising DOMS markers in untrained individuals. This study challenges the wide use of this intervention as a recovery strategy by athletes.

How to and how not to rehab an ankle sprain

Ankle sprains are frequent injuries in soccer. Several strategies were studied[8] to prevent further ankle sprains in athletes: the most common are proprioceptive training, strength training, and orthoses.

Eighty male soccer players who had experienced previous ankle inversion sprain were randomly selected. The subjects were individually and randomly assigned to 4 study groups. Data on the frequency of ankle sprain re-injury were collected at the end of the session.

The incidence of ankle sprains in players in the proprioception training group was significantly lower than in the control group. Neither the strength nor orthotic groups improved in comparison with the control group.

Compared with no intervention, proprioceptive training was an effective strategy to reduce the rate of ankle sprains among male soccer players who suffered an ankle sprain.

To exercise or not after an injury?

Achilles tendinopathy is a common overuse injury, especially among athletes involved in running and jumping. Often an initial period of rest is recommended. A study[9] evaluated if continued running and jumping during treatment with an Achilles tendon-loading strengthening program affects the outcome.

Subjects were randomly allocated to 2 different treatment groups. The exercise training group (n = 19) was allowed to continue Achilles tendon-loading activity, such as running and jumping, using a pain-monitoring model. In contrast, the active rest group (n = 19) had to stop such activities during the first six weeks. All patients were rehabilitated according to an identical rehabilitation program. No significant differences in the rate of improvements were found between the two groups. However, both groups showed significant improvements compared with baseline on the primary outcome measure at all the evaluations.

No negative effects could be demonstrated from continuing Achilles tendon-loading activity, such as running and jumping, using a pain-monitoring model, during treatment. A training regimen of continued, pain-monitored, tendon-loading physical activity might, therefore, represent a valuable option for patients with Achilles tendinopathy.

Resistance exercise fights the flab

A study[10] investigated the effect of acute resistance exercise (RE) on lipolysis within adipose tissue and hence body composition. Lipolysis and blood flow were measured in abdominal subcutaneous adipose tissue via microdialysis before, during, and for five hours following whole body RE as well as on a non-exercise control day (C) in eight young (24 ± 0.7 yr), active (>3 RE session/wk for at least 2 yr) male participants. The mechanism behind RE contributing to improved body composition was found to be in part due to enhanced abdominal subcutaneous adipose tissue lipolysis. It improved whole-body fat oxidation and energy expenditure in response to RE.

Pre-exercise effects

The effects of prior moderate- and prior heavy-intensity exercise on the subsequent metabolic response to incremental exercise were examined[11]. Healthy, young adult subjects (n = 8) performed three randomized plantar-flexion exercise tests: 1) an incremental exercise test (0.6 W/min) to volitional fatigue; 2) Ramp preceded by 6 min of moderate-intensity, constant-load exercise below the intracellular pH threshold (pHT); and 3) Ramp preceded by 6 min of heavy-intensity, constant-load exercise above pHT; the constant-load and incremental exercise periods were separated by 6 min of rest. The findings were that prior heavy-intensity exercise delayed the onset of intracellular acidosis and enhanced exercise performance during a subsequent incremental exercise test.

Intensity and duration - specificity benefits

The effects of the intensity and duration of exercise on training adaptations in a muscle of adolescent racehorses revealed some interesting evidence[12]. Six pre-trained thoroughbreds performed six consecutive conditioning programs of varying lactate-guided intensities [velocities eliciting blood lactate concentrations of 2.5 mmol/l (v2.5) and 4 mmol/l (v4), respectively] and durations (5, 15, 25 min). Pre- and post-training gluteus muscle biopsies were analysed for a range of key markers. Although training adaptations were similar, they varied in magnitude among the different training protocols. Overall, the use of v4 as the exercise intensity for 25 min elicited the most consistent training adaptations in muscle, whereas the minimal training stimulus that evoked any significant change was identified with exercises of 15 min at v2.5. Within this range, muscular adaptations showed significant trends to be proportional to the exercise load of specific training programs. These data suggest that muscular adaptations to training in horses occur on a continuum based on the exercise intensity and duration of training. This study's practical implications are that exercises for 15 to 25 min/day at velocities between v2.5 and v4 can improve in the short term (three weeks) the muscular stamina in thoroughbreds. However, exercises of 5–15 min at v4 are necessary to enhance muscular features related to strength (hypertrophy).

Any human volunteers for a follow-up study?

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • HETHERINGTON, N. (2007) What the experts say. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 43/ June), p. 14-16


  1. Hoang PD et al. 'Effects of Eccentric Exercise on Passive Mechanical Properties of Human Gastrocnemius in vivo' Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 39(5):849-857, May 2007.
  2. Bishop D et al. 'Effects of Active versus Passive Recovery on Thermoregulatory Strain and Performance in Intermittent-Sprint Exercise' Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 39(5):872-879, May 2007
  3. Tadibi V et al. 'Unchanged Anaerobic and Aerobic Performance after Short-Term Intermittent Hypoxia' Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 39(5):858-864, May 2007
  4. Utter AC et al. 'Carbohydrate Attenuates Perceived Exertion during Intermittent Exercise and Recovery' Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 39(5):880-885, May 2007.
  5. Markovic G 'Does plyometric training improve vertical jump height? A meta-analytical review' British Journal of Sports Medicine 2007;41:349-355
  6. Uckert S and Joch W 'Effects of warm-up and precooling on endurance performance in the heat' British Journal of Sports Medicine 2007;41:380-384
  7. Sellwood KL et al. 'Ice-water immersion and delayed-onset muscle soreness: a randomised controlled trial' British Journal of Sports Medicine 2007;41:392-397
  8. Mohammadi F 'Comparison of 3 Preventive Methods to Reduce the Recurrence of Ankle Inversion Sprains in Male Soccer Players' The American Journal of Sports Medicine 35:922-926 (2007)
  9. Silbernagel KG et al. 'Continued Sports Activity, Using a Pain-Monitoring Model, During Rehabilitation in Patients With Achilles Tendinopathy - A Randomized Controlled Study' The American Journal of Sports Medicine 35:897-906 (2007)
  10. Ormsbee MJ et al. 'Fat metabolism and acute resistance exercise in trained men' Appl Physiol 102: 1767-1772, 2007
  11. Raymer GH et al. 'Prior exercise delays the onset of acidosis during incremental exercise' J Appl Physiol 102: 1799-1805, 2007
  12. Jose-Luis L. Rivero Effects of intensity and duration of exercise on muscular responses to training of thoroughbred racehorses' J Appl Physiol 102: 1871-1882, 2007

Page Reference

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About the Author

Nigel Hetherington was the Head Track & Field Coach at the internationally acclaimed Singapore Sports School. He is a former National Performance Development Manager for Scottish Athletics and National Sprints Coach for Wales. Qualified and highly active as a British Athletics level 4 performance coach in all events he has coached athletes to National and International honours in sprints, hurdles as well as a World Record holder in the Paralympic shot. He has ten years of experience as a senior coach educator and assessor trainer on behalf of British Athletics. Nigel is also an experienced athlete in sprint (World Masters Championship level) and endurance (3-hour marathon runner plus completed the 24 hour 'Bob Graham Round' ultra-endurance event up and down 42 mountain peaks in the English Lake District). He is a chartered chemist with 26 years of experience in scientific research and publishing.