What can Blackpool donkeys teach us about exercise

Neil Gibson, Director of Sport, Performance and Health at Oriam: Scotland’s sports performance centre, and Programme Director within the School of Social Sciences recently published a paper looking at optimising recovery between intense periods of work. Here he explains how exercise and interdisciplinary research might help us organise and optimise how allowing people to choose their own recovery lengths might be something worth considering.

Director of Performance, Sport and Health for Oriam

High intensity training is in vogue. It’s being prescribed in CrossFit gyms to exercise classes and interventions designed to help people battle diabetes and manage their weight. But what exactly is it? Generally speaking, the ‘exercise’ part is prescribed using resistance training (lifting weights or moving your body in space), cycling, running or rowing either outside or on specially designed ergometers. The intensity, which is how hard the exercise is or is perceived to be, is often individualised in an attempt to make the stimulus more effective, as is the length of each repetition, from 30 seconds to four minutes. It is fair to say that there has been a reasonable amount of research done around how best to prescribe these bouts of exercise, however, in contrast, relatively little regarding how best to schedule recovery periods. Whether we are involved in periods of intense work in our jobs or during exercise, how we recover is paramount to how effective we are likely to be.

In the past, recovery periods during exercise, and even in schools and the workplace, have been scheduled using time. Many of us will still be inclined to take a break for our ‘elevenses’ whilst the lunch ‘hour’ is still a staple of many professions and schools. If anyone ever asks you what the donkeys in Blackpool get for their lunch, tell then 60 minutes, just like everyone else! But, is this the best way to organise recovery periods and is there an alternative? Our research would suggest not.

Weights training equipment at Oriam

To try and look at this using an exercise task, we asked recreational runners to perform a series of runs at a certain speed that was linked to their fitness levels. The more time during each run in a series of 12 repetitions they were able to spend at or above this speed, the better. Some of you will be familiar with this approach to designing training sessions. However, if you’re not, think of it as being able to achieve a certain level of productivity during small sections of your working day that are separated by small breaks to check your phone or favourite internet site. We then compared whether the runners were more able to maintain running speed when separated by externally regulated recovery periods (the clock), or, when they were able to choose how long to recover for (self-regulated). The results are in: when the runners were able to choose recovery duration, their productivity, or, time spent above the target speed, increased! In this instance, at least, it made sense to allow people autonomy over how long they recovered for between periods of intense work, a tactic that fitness enthusiasts, educators and employers alike might find interesting.

The ability to allocate effective periods of recovery that allow us to maintain performance levels during intense periods of work or exercise, however, is a complex task and one that physiological measures alone – heart and breathing rates for example – cannot inform nor describe. We found that asking people to describe the affective cues, that is, how they interpreted changes in their physiology during exercise was a useful way of understanding how they approached the challenge of choosing an optimal recovery length. This should be a nice reminder to trainers, educators and employers that using subjective approaches to monitoring and measuring performance is just as important as objective and quantitative indices.

Sometimes, there is more to know than what numerical scales and quantitative data can provide. The interaction between the body and mind is just one of the ways that the School of Social Sciences is working with Oriam; Scotlands sports performance centre to understand how we can optimise performance in a range of settings.

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