NutritionSports Science

Recovery Strategies for Sport

By February 22, 2019 May 23rd, 2019 No Comments


Are you training hard in preparation for your next sporting season or race? You may have your training programmed but have you planned out your recovery strategies?

In this article we look over the reason why we need to consider recovery strategies. We will then review some of the common recovery methods, the strength of evidence and practicalities implementing them, including: Nutrition, Hydration, Sleep, Stretching, Ice Baths, Foam Roller, Massage, Compression Garments, Active Recovery.

First, let’s take some time understanding what happens when we add a new training stimulus to the body. Take a look at the diagram below illustrating supercompensation theory. Note that fitness could be more specifically defined depending on what you are targeting e.g. strength, endurance, speed, power etc.



You will notice after the training there’s actually a decrease in fitness as the body recovers from the stimulus. At some level you would have experienced this having performed a demanding exercise after having some time off: between 24-72 hours afterwards you experience delayed onset of muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS occurs because the new stimulus results in mirco-traumas in the muscle fibres followed by an inflammatory response, local swelling and resulting aggravating of pain receptors. During DOMS your fitness performance will be actually be worse (you may be walking with a ‘John-Wayne’ look!), but repeat the workout after the soreness has subsided and you won’t be nearly as sore. Your body has recovered and in fact ‘super-compensated’, improving your fitness. Now DOMS is quite tangibly experienced but there are other subtle neuromuscular reductions in performance that may be more subtle after a training session or match (e.g. take a look at this research).

If you continually hammer your body with high stimulus and don’t allow recovery your body won’t have the time to ‘supercompensate’ and reap the improvement in fitness. It is possible that repeated high intensity stimuli without factoring in recovery time may lead to overtraining, increased risk of illness and long-term impaired performance.

The art and science of strength and conditioning is to help manage the stimuli an athlete or team experiences such that performance is optimised for key events e.g. start of a season, finals, a race. Put simply: ‘Performance = Fitness – Fatigue’ in a balance of training and recovery. If recovery is too short it can lead to overtraining and decreased performance. If recovery is too long there won’t be enough training stimulus to maintain fitness.

With the theory of supercompensation explained hopefully you can see that, if we can improve the quality and speed of recovery, we can actually give the body more chance to improve fitness. Or, in the case of a competitive team sport season, get the body in its best place to be ready for the next game. Note that – given someone isn’t sick, the body will recover, eventually – but if a team is playing in a ‘double-header’ with two fixtures within 1-2 days, then we need to help them recover as quickly as possible. For this reason it’s important to consider some of the common recovery methods, the theory behind them, strength of evidence and practicalities implementing them. Nutrition, Hydration, Sleep, Stretching, Ice Baths, Foam Roller, Massage, Compression Garments, Active Recovery.

What are the options?

Rationale: Replenish any loss in glycogen stores and ensure adequate macronutrients for the body to repair/build muscle.
Strength of Evidence: ★ ★ ★
Practicalities: ★ ★ ★
Easy to take on a high carbohydrate, low fat, high protein snack in the ‘window of opportunity’ 1 hour after training. Read more about recovery nutrition.

Rationale: Replenish any loss in body weight (equivalent to loss in body water) and electrolytes (mainly sodium), particularly if loss in body weight is greater than 3%.
Strength of Evidence: ★ ★ ★
Practicalities: ★ ★ ★
Easy. Look to replace any body weight loss with 1.25% in fluid intake. For example if you lost 1 kg, aim to take on 1.25 L across the 1-2 hours post competition. Also, note the detrimental effect of alcohol on rehydration.

Rationale: Hopefully this is self-explanatory but let’s back it up with some recent research in Aussie rules footy: “reduced sleep quantity was associated with increased incidence of illness within the next 7 days” (Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, Volume 22: 130-134).
Strength of Evidence: ★ ★
Practicalities: ★ ★ ★
In some sense this is easy. However, there’s no set sleep length that suits, typically athletes will sleep longer than the general public. One key practicality is in the case of late night games and trying to wind-down. Essentially the athlete needs to choose the best approach to help get good sleep and wind down. This may include relaxing with team mates and debriefing the game, shower, stretch, bath (see other recovery methods below). Note the dangers of screen-time in the hour before bed (video games, mobile phone use etc) and the detriment on quality sleep.

Rationale: Holding stretches 10-20 seconds to help relax the muscle and restore range of motion.
Strength of Evidence:
Practicalities: ★ ★
Easy to implement in that it requires little equipment but requires discipline for a team/individual especially in the aftermath of a race/game.

Rationale: The cold water helps reduce muscle inflammation and reduces swelling. In recent times is has been argued that reducing inflammation may interfere with the body’s recovery mechanisms and affect long term training adaptations.
Strength of Evidence: ★ ★
If you don’t have dedicated set up it requires a bit of work and mess setting up ice-bins. One possible alternative is to use ‘ice eskies’ just for lower limb. Note, in the case of an ‘ice’ bath the temperature should be 5 minutes at 10-15 C, NOT sub 10 C or near frozen! Some athletes really don’t like ice baths and so, in the case of late-night games they might not help in winding down to get a good night sleep (an essential for recovery).

Rationale: The warmth helps improve circulation for muscle replenishment.
Practicalities:★ ★ ★
Most facilities have hot showers available. Also note the value of warm showers helping the athlete to relax and wind-down making it easier to sleep.

Rationale: Work out tightness and pressure points to relax the athlete.
Strength of Evidence:
Practicalities: ★ ★
In the case of foam rollers it’s very practical, not so if your team doesn’t have the resources to provide dedicated masseurs.

Rationale: Help to reduce muscle-level swelling.
Strength of Evidence:
Practicalities: ★ ★
They can be expensive and it may feel uncomfortable sleeping in them. Look to wear them as soon as possible after the game but take them off before you go to bed.

Rationale: Help improve circulation through jogging, swimming, cycling.
Strength of Evidence:
Practicalities: ★ ★ ★
Pretty easy to have a light jog/walk for 5-20 minutes after a game. Harder to swim and cycle unless the facilities are near-by. Either way, it can be a way for the team to unwind and debrief and so serve to help wind-down mentally at the same time. You want to go at a low intensity and not for too long, otherwise you’re just using up extra energy stores that will need replenishing.

From the above summaries you can make up your own recovery plan depending on your preference and resources available to you. Remember though that the bed-rocks of recovery are sleep, food and fluid. And what will help an athlete recover most effectively? The best training in preparation.

By Laurence Houghton PhD, High Performance Coach