By T.J. Murphy
(This is an introduction to a series of stories looking into electrical muscle stimulation, using a Marc Pro Plus, as an accelerator of recovery both for serious athletes and weekend warriors.)
Here was a refreshing bit I recently found on in a website FAQ for the electrical muscle stimulation product, Marc Pro: One of the questions reads, “Can Marc Pro build abs or other muscles?”
The answer was this: “No.” It went on to clarify that—after 30 years of being in the industry—EMS technology is effective at speeding recovery and post-exercise rebuilding of tissue, but what it’s not going to do for you is build a six-pack of abs for you while you do little more than sit on a couch.
I got the CEO of Marc Pro, Ryan Heaney, on the phone to help me understand exactly how EMS can or should be used by athletes to gain an advantage. Heaney was refreshingly blunt and clear about what the Marc Pro and the Marc Pro Plus is meant to do. “It helps you recover from exercise,” he said, explaining that any conditioning that results from consistent use of EMS is directly because it can help you squeeze more training effect from your workouts.
Heaney told me that what the Marc Pro is designed to do is function as an alternative to a full session of active recovery. In other words, after you do 6 x 800m runs on the track at 5k race pace, you’ve definitely jolted your physiology with a solid training stimulus. It’s not the kind of exercise you would want to do twice a day or even twice a week. The performance improvement from the track session comes as your body recovers and the systems make adaptations so that in time you will be able to run the intervals even faster or run more intervals or cut down on the jog rests between intervals. The mysterious process that links the completion of a workout to ultimately being an athlete who can run faster and faster longer is the recovery.
So in an ideal world you would do a very long, thorough active recovery session. Jogging, walking, maybe even some spinning on a bike or aqua-jogging easy, along with some yoga-type stretching and all that. For a hard session like track intervals, 30 to 60 minutes would be a smart target. This active recovery would remove the intracellular waste products generated by the session and also circulate in nutrients to the newly blown apart cells so they can rebuild.
Sweepstakes Special: Read and support LAVA Magazine with a special subscription price of $9.95 and enter to win a $13,200 Ventum One Dura Ace Di2 Triathlon Bike
One particular important term being used in the discussion of how exercise and recovery works is the term myokine—a protein that is secreted by skeletal muscle. Emerging thinking (for example, as referenced in a Switzerland study published in November 2015 issue of The Bone Journal)suggests that skeletal muscle tissue actually functions as an endocrine system of sorts, and that myokines are hormones. Lack of exercise means lack of myokine production and, per the researchers, “the lack of contraction-induced myokines or the production of a distinct set of hormones in the inactive muscle could likewise contribute to pathological consequences in this context.” In other words, if you’re sedentary you miss out on the hormonal power and signaling effects of myokine production and you’re health suffers. And myokines, per our working understanding, drives the regeneration of tissue.
Which is the point of training—affecting a recovery response so that you’re stronger, faster and able to endure more. The point of training is not to just blow yourself to pieces and be sore and enjoy a brain chemistry endorphin high (at least, it probably shouldn’t the the point).
So active recovery, both right after a workout and how ever it can be employed during a typical day of living (easier for the full-time pro; not so easy for the age-grouper type). If you’re hustling to get a workout in during a 60-minute lunch period, then the thorough active recovery session is vulnerable to getting cut. Same with stretching and all of that.
So this is where Marc Pro can come in handy. A 2011 study published on the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online reported on how nitric oxide, vascular dilation and the movement of oxygenated blood and nutrients—aka the Muscle Activated Recovery Cascade—produces angiogenesis, the wanted regeneration of tissue. So if, for example, you, a triathlete, ride a hard 60 miles on a Saturday morning followed immediately with a brick run, and you find yourself walking to the car zombie-style because the quads and calfs are blown, but an hour of easy spinning is not in the cards because you have to haul ass to get back home for various real-life reasons, then attaching the electrodes of the Marc Pro and setting it on low-frequency for 30 to 60 minutes at night, right before bed or maybe on the sofa when you’re watching TV, is going to help you circulate blood and lymph and release some myokines and ultimately digest/process the hard workout. You then lessen the extent that you go into the following days under-recovered.
I had moment where I finally understood what exactly EMS is for when it comes to triathletes. Does it really work? I’m going to spend a solid 30 days of using a Marc Pro unit pretty much as described above—just zapping myself in areas where I’m particularly fatigued each and every night for a month or so and get a sense of what it does for me. In the process, I’ll continue to interview experts in the area of EMS, along with age-groupers and pros who are using it, to get a better understanding of what it is and how best to use it. I’ll share my reporting on in my Jet Stream column on lavamagazine.com and dish up the full story in a future issue of the mag.