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Runners: how to wobble your way to a faster recovery
All other things being equal, an athlete who can recover faster will be able to train or compete again sooner and harder, all of which can help during periods of intense training or multiday competition events. Unsurprisingly therefore, strategies such as the use of recovery nutrition, cold-water baths and compression clothing to help accelerate post-exercise recovery are the subject of much research among sports scientists. However, recent research on runners suggests that another, less well-known strategy could also help aid recovery, involving nothing more than wearing a particular type of footwear in the days after exercise.
The study by Japanese researchers looked at the use of unstable ‘rocker shoes’ to aid recovery from marathon-induced muscle damage in novice runners [Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2018 Feb;28(2):621-629]. In a previous study, the same group of researchers established that wearing unstable rocker shoes (Masai Barefoot Technology [MBT – see figure 1]) could help enhance recovery from marathon race induced fatigue. However, in that study, the researchers only used questionnaires to measure subjective measures of fatigue. But in this new study, the researchers set out to measure recovery following a marathon by using physiological measures of muscle damage and muscle elasticity (healthy and recovered muscle tissue tends to be more elastic than fatigued and damaged tissue).
Twenty-five novice runners were divided into two groups. After running a full marathon, one group wore unstable MBT shoes during their everyday activities for one week following the race, while the control group simply wore ordinary shoes. Immediately after the marathon and at 1, 3 and 8 days following the marathon, the researchers measured the runners’ levels of maximal force that they could generate in at the knee joint. In addition, they also measured levels of muscle elasticity using a technique known as real time tissue elastography. They then calculated the magnitude of recovery by observing the difference in each value between the first measurement and the latter measurements.
What they found
The results were fascinating; firstly, the MBT shoe wearing runners were able to generate more knee flexion force, even after just one day of wearing the MBT shoes. This contrasted with the control group, who showed no recovery, even at day eight. Measures of muscle elasticity in the gastrocnemius muscle of the calf and vastus lateralis of the outer thigh also showed significantly greater recovery in the MBT group in comparison with the control group. Overall, the researchers concluded that ‘wearing unstable rocker shoes such as MBT shoes enhances recovery in lower leg and thigh muscles as a result of muscle damage induced by marathon running’.
FIGURE 1: MASAI BAREFOOT TECHNOLOGY (MBT) SHOES
Peak Performance verdict
As mentioned earlier, previous research has shown that wearing unstable shoes such as MBT can reduce subjective levels of fatigue following a marathon1. This new research provides further evidence of the benefits; not only was strength increased in the recovery period, actual physiological measures of muscle recovery improved too. Why should this be the case? One very plausible explanation is that wearing unstable shoes enhances muscle activity during everyday activities such as walking2. This increase in low-level activity muscle activity could help improve blood circulation in damaged muscles, helping to accelerate the removal of waste products and encouraging tissue repair. Given that you’re going to be putting on shoes of some sort at the beginning of the day anyway, using unstable shoes could be worth a try, especially after an unusually hard training session or a race.
- Consider the use of unstable rocker shoes such as MBT after hard training or racing.
- Don’t forget other recovery methods too; studies show that the use of cold-water immersion, compression clothing and the use of rapidly-digesting proteins such as whey protein consumed immediately after exercise can all help accelerate recovery.