Research Review: Active Recovery Between Training Runs

Success in alpine ski racing is determined by a multitude of factors, one of which is an athlete’s ability to tolerate high volume training blocks on-snow during the summer and the fall months. If skill acquisition depends on repetition, then successfully acquiring a new skill requires the athlete to execute specific movement patterns at high intensity, run after run, day after day. If the velocity of movements is reduced due to fatigue, then arguably the athlete is no longer practising the same skill.

Traditionally, our focus on-hill has been to advise the athletes on appropriate hydration and nutrition interventions for them to recover between runs, as well as warm up / activations routines. We use a number of recovery methods off hill to ensure they are able to train well the next day. Our programs stress improving work capacity in the off-season so that the athlete will recover well during passive rest intervals (e.g. sitting on a chairlift or at the start of the training course).

I recently reviewed a new research article (White and Wells, 2015) which examined the effect of performing active recovery between runs in order to expedite the removal of metabolic waste products such as lactate. During highly intense, anaerobic activities such as ski training, accumulation of lactate results in a decrease in muscle PH and as a result muscle contractions are impaired (slowed down). The researchers hypothesized that active recovery between runs would result in lower blood lactate concentrations and as a result the athletes who did active recovery would have improved training run times and greater success completing courses than those who did static recovery only.

Research methods

This research is  interesting because of the relevance of the population studied to club and provincial team coaches. The environment in which the study was conducted is also highly relevant. The subjects were fourteen male and female athletes competing on the Nor Am and NCAA circuit. They were 17-20 years old. Average FIS point profiles were 42.9 (+/- 17.4 FIS points). The research was conducted on the Mt Hood glacier at 2600m.

The study was conducted on the first day of an 8 day camp. Participants were randomly assigned to either an active recovery group (ACT) or a passive recovery group (CON).   Following a standardized warm up, male athletes skied at 25 gate GS (26.5m radius) and women skied a 45 gate slalom (9m radius). Blood lactates were measured immediately before each training run and two minutes following the training run. Each athlete performed 8 runs.  The ACT group walked along the road above the ski course for 3 minutes at slow-moderate pace following their run. The CON group remained static in their skis at the top of the course for 3 minutes.

Results

Blood lactate measures were significantly higher for the CON (passive) compared with the ACT (active) group by runs 5-8. No difference were recorded with regards to perception of fatigue. The CON group had significantly slower times in run 5 and 6 and no male athlete completed runs 7 or 8. The ACT group had faster runs by run 6 compared with the CON group. Most interestingly, eleven DNF’s were recorded for the CON group, of which the majority were in the final 2 runs, whereas the ACT group recorded zero DNF’s.

Conclusion

The study concludes that “3 minutes of on-hill active recovery performed at the top of a training run resulted in significantly lower blood lactate concentration than static recovery,” (White and Wells, p.804).

Limitations

The sample size used in this study was relatively small.  Further research would be required to repeat the study and confirm the findings.  The authors acknowledged that they encountered some technical difficulties, specifically a timing malfunction on the women’s slalom course which resulted in no objective measure for this group.  Ski training / racing occurs under a wide variety of conditions which may impact recovery.  The effects of higher altitude, heat, cold and different terrain / snow conditions should be examined in future research.

Discussion and Practical Implications

Anecdotal data and observation from coaches in the past tell us that failure to recover between runs is a limiting factor in accomplishing high intensity training volume, which is in turn a limiting factor to success in alpine ski racing. Most of the training focus in the past has been driven (I think correctly) towards creating an ‘engine’ which can tolerate high volumes of training, as well as appropriate post-training recovery. This quality is referred to in training as ‘work capacity’.

This study has some practical implications for ski coaches to consider. While the athletes performing static recovery did not feel they were more fatigued than the active recovery group (perception of fatigue scores) the lactate profiles show they clearly were. The authors speculate that this perception was a result of peripheral rather than central nervous system fatigue. Coaches should recognise that using this intervention may not be recognised by athletes as helpful, as they may not necessarily feel more prepared for their next training run after active recovery. The subtle effects of active recovery should be reinforced by the coach.

Impaired muscle function and motor control are connected with a higher risk for injury. Increased lactate production and failure to remove lactate impairs muscle function and so may put the athlete at a greater risk of injury. The coach could potentially mitigate this risk by having athletes do a short bout of active recovery between runs.

This study examined the effect of 3 minutes of moderate paced walking on clearing lactate. It is well acknowledged that there are some practical limitations to doing 3 minutes of walking at the top of a training run. In cold, winter conditions, this may actually be harmful to the athlete as they will cool down and then perhaps be even less prepared. The study was conducted in warm temperatures on a glacier where access is easy. This is not always the case. Future studies may look at the effect of other forms of movement (e.g. dynamic stretching) as well as timing of active recovery (e.g. at the bottom of the training run vs the top). It would also be interesting to experiment with this protocol at different points in the training session. For example, the athlete may not do active recovery until they start to feel fatigue building OR their run times start to fall off. If the training session is anticipated to involve high lactate accumulations (e.g. training at high altitude, long courses, challenging terrain, challenging course sets) the coach may feel active recovery is necessary. If the training is relatively easy from a metabolic standpoint, then active recovery is likely to be less important to training success.

References

White, G.E & Wells, G.D. (2015) “The Effect of On-Hill Active Recovery Performed Between Runs on Blood Lactate Concentration and Fatigue in Alpine Skiers” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 29(3):800-806.