Active recovery

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Active recovery, including cool downs, low intensity exercise and water-based activity, is often used to speed up recovery after intense exercise. They are most commonly used immediately post-exercise, but sometimes on days between competitions or heavy training.

Active recovery can indeed reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after both intermittent exercise and eccentric resistance training.

Active recovery, especially light resistance exercise, helps to reduce the losses in upper body dynamic strength following eccentric exercise, but may not affect measures of isometric strength or lower body strength. In this respect, active recovery is less effective than cold water immersion.

Performing active recovery by way of a cool down after contact and non-contact sporting matches and training does not reduce the losses in lower body muscle power up to 24 hours post-exercise.

Flexibility, as measured as passive or active joint range of motion, is not affected by active recovery when used either as a cool down or in a standalone recovery session.

Aerobic performance is not enhanced from performing active recovery, when measured by reference to race performance. However it may help reduce losses in work done in intense efforts, when recovery is less than 24 hours.

Performing low intensity water-based activity can help improve psychological recovery after team sports games, by elevating some mood measures. 

 

PRACTICAL PERSPECTIVE

Active recovery and active cool downs are both low-risk and low-cost interventions for athletes. They can reduce muscle soreness after intermittent exercise and eccentric resistance training, and reduce losses in dynamic strength following eccentric resistance training. They can also elevate mood, which likely improves perception of recovery and psychological well-being. Using light load resistance exercise of 30% of 1RM for 20 – 50 repetitions, performing low-intensity land- or water-based activity for less than 60 minutes, or using an active cool down lasting around 15 minutes seem optimal.

 


CONTENTS

Full table of contents

  1. Background
  2. Effects on muscle soreness
  3. Effects on muscle strength
  4. Effects on muscle power
  5. Effects on range of motion
  6. Effects on aerobic performance
  7. Effects on psychological recovery
  8. References
  9. Contributors
  10. Provide feedback

 



BACKGROUND

PURPOSE

This section provides a useful background of exercise-induced adaptation, the primary consequences in relation to performance, and a brief overview of the effects of active recovery.

INTRODUCTION

Active recovery

Active recovery is a common method of recovery used by team sports and individual athletes alike. Typically, active recovery involves periods of low intensity exercise performed between heavy training sessions or between competitions, as a means to enhance the recovery process. Often, it is used immediately post-exercise as a “cool down” but it can also be used at any time point between two bouts of exercise. In practice, it is not performed closer than 24 hours to the second bout of exercise or competition. Active recovery is usually performed with lower efforts of a similar form of exercise (Sayers et al, 2000), using similar musculature but often with different exercises such as exercise bikes (Gill et al. 2006) or through water-based activity (Tessitore et al. 2008).

Features of active recovery

A number of studies have assessed the effect of active recovery on lactate removal. And while these studies have shown reductions in lactate removal (Watts et al. 2000, Taoutaou et al. 1996), the removal of lactate does not seems to be a valid predictor of training recovery, specifically when considering the recovery between exercise sessions, matches or competitions (Barnett et al. 2006). Not to mention, a number of studies have reported that the relationship between reductions in post-exercise lactate and subsequent performance is not a strong one. For example, some studies report no improvements in performance when repeating exercise after an active recovery despite reductions in lactate concentration, and others report improved performance after active recovery despite no change in lactate concentration (Bond et al. 1991, Weltman et al. 1983, Connelly et al. 2003). That is to say, measuring lactate removal post-exercise is not necessarily a strong predictor of the subsequent performance. Therefore, the primary question is not whether active recovery effects post-exercise lactate recovery, but whether active recovery has a meaningful effect on either performance or on the perception of recovery, between distinctly separate exercise bouts.

Exercise-induced adaptations

For an athlete to make consistent improvements in their performance they require two fundamental elements, (1) Exercise that overloads their current capacity, and (2) adequate recovery that overcomes and surpasses the short-term reduction in performance. Recovery from exercise is a dynamic process, which depending on both internal and external factors, can be accomplished in shorter or longer timescales (Bishop et al. 2008). Recovery is also dependent on the type and magnitude of the disturbance. Gomez et al. (2002) found that recovery of muscle power following a 10km foot race was not achieved at 48 hours post-exercise. Furthermore, McLester et al. (2003) found that recovery of muscle strength from a resistance-training bout was only realised after 72 hours post-exercise. However, recovery following exercise appears to vary widely between individuals, and may in part be due to differences in modifiable factors (Bishop et al. 2008, Gomez et al. 2002, McLester et al. 2003). As such, interventions that improve training recovery are thought to hold the promise of greater athletic performance.

Fatigue and training recovery

Recovery from exercise is intended to undo the short-term loss in performance, due to increased fatigue and/or muscle damage, thought necessary for exercise-induced adaptations to occur. Bishop et al. (2008) states that training recovery is the attempt of overcoming all the effects of fatigue incurred by the exercise, whatever they may be. There are two main hypotheses of fatigue, (1) the central fatigue hypothesis, and (2) the peripheral fatigue hypothesis. The central fatigue hypothesis states that the brain acts as a protective mechanism to prevent excessive damage to the muscles during the recovery period. In contrast, the peripheral fatigue hypothesis states that the muscles experience some disturbance (either biochemical or structural) during exercise, which reduces their intrinsic contractile machinery. It is likely that both central and peripheral factors interact to affect training recovery and ultimately performance following fatiguing exercise (Enoka et al. 1995, Noakes et al. 2001). Thus, it is logical that a recovery intervention would target either central or peripheral fatigue factors, or both. Therefore, either tests of whether wearing compression garments affect measures of central or peripheral fatigue, or direct performance tests following different types of exercise will provide conclusions on whether their use is effective during training recovery.

SECTION CONCLUSIONS

Active recovery, including cool downs, low intensity exercise and water-based activity, is often used to speed up recovery after intense exercise. They are most commonly used immediately post-exercise, but sometimes on days between competitions or heavy training.

Active recovery appears to reduce lactate concentrations across very short recovery periods as well as between subsequent day exercise bouts. However, increasing lactate removal between exercise sessions does not seem to predict performance, and therefore this is not a valid measure of its effectiveness.


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EFFECTS ON MUSCLE SORENESS

PURPOSE

This section summarizes the research into the effects of active recovery on measures of muscle soreness in the recovery period, post-exercise.

INTRODUCTION

Few studies have assessed the effect of active recovery on measures of perceived muscle soreness following different forms of exercise. Perceived muscle soreness refers to the discomfort, tenderness or pain experienced in the muscle following exercise, and is typically exaggerated when an individual is returning from a period of reduced activity, or experiencing a relatively novel training stimulus. Perceived muscle soreness is very commonly referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Sports scientists can quantify DOMS with a variety of measurements, the most common being a subjective rating scale (visual analogue scale) where individuals rate their perceived ‘global’ muscle soreness or when performing daily tasks, when moving the muscle through its range of motion, or upon palpation (Cheung et al. 2003, Kraemer et al. 2010).

 

DOMS AFTER RESISTANCE ECCENTRIC TRAINING

Selection criteria

Population – any

Intervention – any exercise bout that focuses on high to maximal eccentric loading with the aim of causing acute muscle damage

Comparison – the use of active recovery either immediately or sometime between exercise bouts compared to passive recovery or another recovery intervention such as compression garments

Outcome – any measurement or rating scale of perceived muscle soreness

Results

The following studies were identified: Sayers et al. (2000), Donnelly et al. (1992), Weber et al. (1994)

Findings

Active recovery may produce small reductions in DOMS following eccentric resistance training when measured 48 hours to 6 days post exercise. Using light resistance training or low intensity ergometry in short daily bouts appears best.

All four studies assessed healthy non-strength trained men and women. The interventions all consisted of a single bout of heavy eccentric arm flexion exercise followed by active recovery consisting of reduced load arm curls, arm curls and extensions or upperbody ergometry. For example, Sayers et al. (2000) assessed the effect of daily dumbbell curls with a very light (5lb) weight after maximum load eccentric arm curls. They report that DOMS was non-significantly lower (0.5 – 1 point on a 10 point scale) when assessed at day 4 – 6 post-exercise. In contrast, Donnelly et al. (1992) reported that active recovery produced greater DOMS 48 hours post exercise), but by 72 hours, tended to produce lower DOMS (3 vs. 4.2 out of 10) compared to passive recovery. In support, Weber et al. (1994) reported no effect of a bout of upper body ergometry repeated immediately and 24 hours post-exercise on DOMS. However, the range of DOMS scores was lower (0-3 vs. 1-4 on 0-6 scale) 48 hours post-exercise, indicating that individuals receiving active recovery perceived lower muscle soreness compared to passive. Therefore, active recovery performed daily as either light resistance training or ergometry may have a small effect on DOMS 48 hours to 6 days post exercise.

Summary 

Active recovery following eccentric elbow flexion exercise reduces DOMS between 48 hours to 6 days post exercise and is best when using daily bouts of light resistance training or cycle ergometry.

DOMS AFTER INTERMITTENT EXERCISE

Selection criteria

Population – any

Intervention – any intermittent exercise bout

Comparison – the use of active recovery either immediately or sometime between exercise bouts compared to passive recovery or another recovery intervention such as compression garments

Outcome – any measurement or rating scale of perceived muscle soreness

Results

The following studies were identified: Kinugasa et al (2009), Tessitore et al. (2008) Webb et al. (2011), Reilley et al. (2002) Dawson et al. (2005), Marquet et al. (2015).

Findings

Active recovery appears beneficial in reducing DOMS and perceptions of fatigue such as ‘heavy legs’ when using an active cool down following matches and when using active recovery within successive days of training. However, active recovery sessions either on land or in water is not beneficial following contact sports. When comparing recovery methods, active recovery appears less effective than cold water immersion in reducing DOMS.

All studies to date have assessed athletes in either non-contact (Kinugasa et al. 2009, Reilly et al. 2002, Tessitore et al, 2008) contact (Webb et al. 2011, Dawson et al. 2005) or extreme sports (Marquet et al. 2015). Three studies reported a tendency or more likely positive effects of active recovery while three studies found no difference (Tessitore et al. 2008, Webb et al. 1994) or negative effects (Dawson et al, 2005) of active recovery. For example, an active cool down reduces DOMS 24 hours post-match in non-contact sports (Kinugasa et al. 2009, Reilly et al. 2002) and between multi-day training sessions of BMX riding (Marquet et al. 2015). In contrast, a cool down following contact sports (Webb et al. 2011, Dawson et al. 2005) does not reduce DOMS and is less effective than cold water immersion when measured 15 – 42 hours post-match. Further, Dawson et al. (2005) reported greater DOMS at 15 hours after an Australian football match when compared to passive recovery and therefore may not be effective when recovery time is limited.

Summary

Active recovery in the form of a cool down can reduce DOMS and perceptions of fatigue in the legs following non-contact sports, but no effect exists followings contact sports. Active recovery is most effective at reducing DOMS 24 hours post-exercise or between multi-day training sessions.

SECTION CONCLUSIONS

Active recovery can reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after both intermittent exercise and eccentric resistance training.


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EFFECT ON STRENGTH

PURPOSE

This section summarizes the research into the effects of active recovery on measures of muscle strength during the recovery period, post-exercise.

INTRODUCTION

Few studies have assessed the effect of active recovery on the recovery of muscle strength following eccentric exercise and resistance training. Muscle strength can be measured by various methods. In the available studies, muscle strength has been measured by the maximal force or torque applied during a maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC), as well as the maximal force or torque applied at a given movement speed (isokinetic). Measures of muscle strength have been assessed as early as 1 hour and as long as 9 days post-exercise to investigate whether muscle strength is greater in individuals using types of active recovery during the post-exercise recovery period.

MUSCLE STRENGTH AFTER ECCENTRIC TRAINING

Selection criteria

Population – any

Intervention – any resistance training bout that focuses on high load eccentric muscle contractions

Comparison – the use of active recovery immediately or sometime following the initial training bout compared to passive recovery or another recovery intervention such as compression garments.

Outcome – any measurement or muscle strength or torque production such as 1RM or MVIC.

Results

The following studies were identified: Donnelly et al. (1992), Sayers et al. (2000), Sorichter et al. (1994), Strejcova et al. (2012), Weber et al. (1994).

Findings

Using active recovery by repeating the exercise with lighter loads reduces the losses in strength following eccentric resistance bouts and has benefits at 1, 3 and 7 days post-exercise. However, performing low intensity exercise such as upper body ergometry does not reduce losses in strength compared to passive recovery.

Three studies found reduced losses in strength measured at 24 and 72, but not 48 hours (Donnelly et al. 1992), at day 7 (Sayers et al. 2000) as well as 15 min post-exercise (Strejcova et al. 2012). In contrast, two studies found no effect of active recovery at 2hrs and 1 through 9 days (Soritcher et al. 1994), and 24 – 48 hours (Weber et al. 1994). Additionally, five studies have assessed the effect of active recovery on measures of strength after eccentric training. All studies involved healthy recreationally active men or men and women and assessed either elbow flexion strength or knee extension and flexion strength (Strejcova et al. 2012). Of the three studies that found reduced losses in strength, active recovery consisted of performing the same exercise but with reduced loads either the day after (Donnelly et al. 1992), every day for 9 days (Sayers et al. 2000), or performing light exercise immediately after resistance training (Strejcova et al. 2012). For example, Donnelly et al. (1992) reported meaningful reductions in the losses of strength, 10 – 15% less at 24 hours and 72 hours compared to passive recovery. Sayers et al. (2000) only reported reduced losses in strength when measures 7 days post-exercise. However, they only measured strength day 4 – 12 and therefore it is not known whether strength was different between 24 – 72 hours post-exercise. In contrast, active recovery following knee extension (Soritcher et al. 1994) or arm flexion (Weber et al. 1994) training did not reduce losses in strength 1 – 9 days or 24 – 48 hours post-exercise, respectively. Therefore, active recovery does not reduce the losses in strength following eccentric training of the quadriceps and conflicting reports suggest improvements and no difference following arm flexion exercise. Of note, Donnelly et al. (1992) reported improvements in dynamic arm flexion strength, while weber reported no difference in isometric arm flexion strength.

Summary

Active recovery reduces losses in dynamic strength of the arm flexors, but not of the knee extensors following eccentric exercise 24 to 72 hours post exercise. Active recovery does not reduce losses in isometric strength of the arm flexors. Using light loads of a similar resistance exercise has superior benefits compared to ergometry type exercise for preserving strength.

Muscle strength after resistance exercise

Selection criteria

Population – any

Intervention – any resistance exercise bout

Comparison – the use of active recovery between training bouts compared to passive recovery or another recovery intervention such as compression garments.

Outcome – any measurement or muscle strength or torque production such as 1RM or MVIC.

Results

The following studies were identified: Roberts et al. (2015)

Findings

Very little data exists to assess the effect of active recovery in so far that one study has explored very short recovery periods (<40min) following a concentric only resistance bout. That said, active recovery does reduce losses of maximal strength following maximal effort concentric resistance training.

Roberts et al. (2015) 10 sets of 20 repetitions (concentric only) maximal dynamic contractions of the knee extensors at 90 degrees/s. Active recovery was 10min at self-selected pace. Peak isometric knee extension strength was reduced more so after the active recovery at 5, 20 and 40 min post-exercise.

Summary

Maximal strength after very short recovery periods (1 hour) is not preserved by using active recovery immediately following resistance training, and in this respect seem to be less effective than cold water immersion.

SECTION CONCLUSIONS

Active recovery, especially light resistance exercise, helps to reduce the losses in upper body dynamic strength following eccentric exercise, but may not affect measures of isometric strength or lower body strength. In this respect, active recovery is less effective than cold water immersion.


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EFFECTS ON MUSCLE POWER

PURPOSE

This section summarizes the research into the effects of active recovery on measures of muscle power during the recovery period, post-exercise.

INTRODUCTION

A number of studies have investigated the practical benefits of active recovery on measures of muscle power following intermittent exercise. Most often, muscle power has been measured by jump height (countermovement or squat jump), which seems to be a valid test of lower body power (Markovic et al. 2004).

MUSCLE POWER AFTER INTERMITTENT EXERCISE

Selection criteria

Population – any

Intervention – any intermittent aerobic exercise bout

Comparison – the use of active recovery to passive recovery or another recovery intervention such as compression garments.

Outcome – any measurement of muscle power such as jump height or bench press throw

Results

The following studies were identified: Tessitore et al. (2008), Webb et al. (2011), Rey et al. (2012), Marquet et al. (2015), Dawson et al. (2005) Reilley et al. (2002).

Findings

Active recovery does not reduce losses in muscle power following intermittent exercise when using an active cool down or low intensity exercise within successive day training sessions. Further, cold water immersion, contrast water therapy and nutritional therapy are better at reducing the losses in muscle power following intermittent exercise than active recovery alone.

Six studies have assessed the use of active recovery following intermittent exercise. All studies to date have assessed athletes in either non-contact (Reilly et al. 2002, Tessitore et al. 2008, Rey et al. 2012) contact (Webb et al. 2011, Dawson et al. 2005) or extreme sports (Marquet et al. 2015).

Three studies found reduced losses in muscle power (Rey et al. 2012, Reilly et al. 2002, Dawson et al. 2005) when measured 15 to 24 hours post exercise. Countermovement height was the only measure that was affected by active recovery while measures of sprint running and agility were not (Rey et al. 2012). For example, Dawson et al. (2005) reported reduced losses in countermovement height, 1.9% compared to 9% reduction when using a cool down and measured 15 hours post-match. In support, countermovement jump height measured at 24 hours post-exercise was better preserved following an active cool down (Rey et al. 2012, Reilly et al. 2002) but the absolute difference was very small (closer to 1%) when compared to passive recovery. In contrast, some studies have reported no effect of active recovery when using land or water-based cool downs (Tessitore et al. 2008), or when using during a 3-day training camp (Marquet et al. 2015). Interestingly, contrast water therapy reduces the losses in countermovement height at 15 hours (-15 vs. -6%) and 42 hours (-8 vs. -6%) after a rugby match (Webb et al. 2011).

Summary

Active recovery immediately following contact and non-contact sports does not appear to reduce losses in muscle power measured by jump height between 8 to 24 hours post-exercise, and is less effective than other recovery methods such as water immersion and nutritional therapy.

SECTION CONCLUSIONS

Performing active recovery by way of a cool down after contact and non-contact sporting matches and training does not reduce the losses in lower body muscle power up to 24 hours post-exercise.


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EFFECTS ON RANGE OF MOTION (ROM) MEASURES

PURPOSE

This section summarizes the research into the effects of active recovery on measures of range of motion (ROM) during the recovery period, post-exercise.

INTRODUCTION

Few studies have assessed the effect of active recovery on range of motion following different types of exercise. In these cases, range of motion has been assessed either by the maximum passive range of motion achieved (Rey et al, 2012), or the maximum active global range of motion (Dawson et al. 2005).

RANGE OF MOTION AFTER INTERMITTENT EXERCISE

Selection criteria

Population – any

Intervention – any intermittent aerobic exercise bout

Comparison – the use of active recovery to passive recovery or another recovery intervention such as compression garments.

Outcome – any measurement of active or passive joint range of motion.

Results

The following studies were identified: Rey et al. (2012), Dawson et al. (2005).

Findings

Active recovery performed immediately after competition as a cool down on land or in water does not reduce losses in flexibility and range of motion between 15 – 24 hours post-exercise, nor does low intensity active recovery performed the day after competition when measuring range of motion 48 hours post-exercise.

Two studies have assessed range of motion following intermittent exercise. Rey et al. (2012) found no difference in 24 hour post-exercise flexibility measured by testing the range of motion in the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors and gastrocnemius when comparing active and passive cool downs performed immediately after soccer training. Dawson et al. (2005) assessed the effect of a pool-based cool down consisting of walking, which did not reduce losses in flexibility measured via sit and reach approximately 15 hours post-exercise. Further, no differences in the sit and reach test were observed between active recovery and passive recovery, 48 hours post match, after an additional low intensity recovery session (24 hours post-match) performed the day before testing.

Summary

Active cool downs nor light recovery exercise 24 hours post-match reduce the losses in flexibility after non-contact and contact sports when measured 15 – 24 after competition.

SECTION CONCLUSIONS

Flexibility, as measured as passive or active joint range of motion, is not affected by active recovery when used either as a cool down or in a standalone recovery session.


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EFFECTS ON AEROBIC PERFORMANCE

PURPOSE

This section summarizes the research into the effects of active recovery on measures of aerobic performance during the recovery period, post-exercise.

INTRODUCTION

A number of studies have assessed the effect of active recovery on the recovery of aerobic performance. These studies have measured aerobic performance in a variety of ways including fixed distance time trials and fixed time-time trials.

AEROBIC PERFORMANCE AFTER AEROBIC EXERCISE

Selection criteria 

Population – any

Intervention – any intermittent aerobic exercise bout

Comparison – the use of active recovery to passive recovery or another recovery intervention such as compression garments.

Outcome – any measurement of aerobic performance such as such as a time trial or an incremental fitness test.

Results

The following studies were identified: Lane et al. (2004), Bosak et al. (2008), Thiriet et al. (1993), Monedero et al. (2000).

Findings

Four studies have assessed the effect of active recovery following aerobic performance. Two studies assessed recovery between exercise bouts, while two studies assessed the use of active recovery with very short recovery between efforts (Thiriet et al. 1993, Monedero et al. 2000). For example, Lane et al. (2004) reported that an active cool down was as effective as massage or cryotherapy in preventing the loss in power output (measured as work done) during an 18 min varying intensity cycle trial when repeated 24 hours post-exercise. However, the loss in work done during the 18 min trial was 108 vs. 106 kJ in passive recovery, an average reduction of 1.8%. In support, Bosak et al. (2008) reported no effect of low intensity exercise between 5km race performances. They assessed 5km race performance separated by 72 hours using active recovery at 24 and 48 hours (slow 5 mile run) or passive recovery. In contrast, two studies report superior maintenance of work output during cycle ergometry when using active recovery between efforts. These studies assessed very short recovery periods between 15-20 min between cycling efforts (Thiriet et al. 1993 Monedero et al. 2000).

Summary

Active cool down after intense cycling appears to have small effects on reducing the losses in the next performance when recovery is less than 24 hours between bouts. Work done during cycling efforts seems to be improved by 2% in efforts lasting 18 minutes.

SECTION CONCLUSIONS

Aerobic performance is not enhanced by active recovery, when measured by reference to race performance. However it may help reduce losses in work done in intense efforts, when recovery is less than 24 hours.


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EFFECTS ON PSYCHOLOGICAL RECOVERY

PURPOSE

This section summarizes the research into the effects of active recovery on measures of mood and well-being during the recovery period, post-exercise.

INTRODUCTION

Low and moderate intensity exercise has been show to improve relaxation and psychological stress (Chodzko et al. 1997), in contrast to intense exercise and competition. However, very limited data exists as regards to active recovery insofar that one study has assessed psychological recovery. In most cases, psychological recovery is measured by way of questionnaire using the Profile of Mood States (POMS) (McNair et al. 1971) or the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) (Crawford et al. 2004) questionnaires that score well-being.

MOOD AFTER INTERMITTENT EXERCISE

Selection criteria

Population – any

Intervention – any intermittent exercise bout

Comparison – the use of active recovery to passive recovery or another recovery intervention such as compression garments.

Outcome – any measurement of psychological wellbeing including mood state and positive and negative affect.

Results

The following studies were identified: Suzuki et al. (2015).

Findings

In the one study that was identified, Suzuki et al. (2015) assessed mood after a rugby match when using passive recovery or low intensity exercise. They reported superior psychological recovery (tension score on POMS) 48 hours post-match when using 60 min of daily water-based low intensity active recovery, compared to using only passive recovery.

Summary 

Low intensity water-based exercise can help improve psychological recovery, by elevating mood after competitive rugby matches, when measured 48 hours post-exercise.  

SECTION CONCLUSIONS

Performing low intensity water-based activity can help improve psychological recovery after team sports games, by elevating some mood measures. 


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REFERENCES

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CONTRIBUTORS

Adam Bentley performed the literature reviews, wrote the first draft of this page and was the primary author.

Chris Beardsley performed the first review of this page.


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