Recovery is a very hot topic surrounding sports performance and athletes at present. The key question I have to ask myself when it comes to implementing recovery strategies within our squad, is which methods are the most suitable for the players and that are also going to give them the biggest return or benefit. There is often much conflicting evidence within the research as to how beneficial a particular recovery strategy may be, a good example of this is the evidence surrounding the effectiveness of ice baths. There are also many fads and gadgets that are released claiming to be the ultimate recovery modalities but again where is the evidence to back up these claims?
So with such a wide number of strategies and gimmicks available to us as S&C coaches how do we decide which ones are the most effective for optimising recovery in our athletes? Firstly I think we have to understand fatigue in response to training / competition and how it manifests itself. Also we have to consider whether or not we actually need to accelerate the recovery period or whether it is best to let the body adapt and respond naturally. This will depend upon your time of the season and frequency of competition.
Fatigue can be defined in a reduction in normal function of the body in response to a stress or load being placed upon it, which in our world is normally physical in nature. This response to a physical load is known as super-compensation – the time period from the end of a training session until the body has fully recovered and adapted from that session and it is our job as S&C coaches to optimise this process. There are different types of fatigue depending upon the systems being utilized within your athlete’s particular sport; commonly these will be neuromuscular, metabolic and/or hormonal in nature. So how do we best restore normal function within these systems?
I like to categorize recovery strategies as either primary or secondary with primary ones being essential and secondary as being supplementary. The primary strategies include sleep, nutrition & hydration and these should form the basis of any good recovery programme. It is recommended that your athletes get between 8-10 hours of good un-interrupted sleep per night as this is when the body is recovering and adapting at its fastest rate. Also a good nutritional intake is critical during this time. A high carb and protein diet is recommended following high intensity training or exercise in order to provide the body with the essential macro & micronutrients that it needs to replenish glycogen stores, help repair muscle damage and also to restore normal cellular function. It is also imperative to ensure good rehydration post exercise as quite often an athlete will lose body fluid and electrolytes. This can be measured by pre and post weigh in of your athletes to determine how much weight has been lost during exercise. As a general rule of thumb for each 1lb of weight loss = 500ml fluid that needs to be replaced. This can be in the form of water or may be more effective to use a glucose drink with added electrolytes. This is just a brief overview of these essential strategies but it is essential that these strategies are being followed prior to the implementation of secondary modalities. I am a big believer that the key to successful recovery is through athlete education and ensuring that they understand the importance of these strategies and know how to effectively implement them.
The secondary recovery methods are generally a lot more subjective and individual to an athlete and include the following: –
Stretching / Yoga
Ice baths / Contrast baths
Pool Session (hydrotherapy)
Electrical Muscle Stimulation
As I mentioned above there is limited evidence to support some of these modalities, but I have come to the conclusion that if something makes an athlete feel good either physically or mentally then it must surely be beneficial for recovery and anything that makes an athlete feel stressed or negative must be detrimental. This is quite a primal view but in my time working with professional athletes I have come to understand that the emotional and psychological component of recovery is probably more important than the physical. Therefore any strategy that you want to implement consideration must be given to the psychological and emotional response that will occur as a result. A good option that I have used to develop a recovery protocol is the design of a recovery menu, this is whereby the athletes have to choose a minimum of 3 out of 6 modalities from a list that they most prefer. I like this method because it is more individualised and allows the athlete to take ownership of their recovery.
From my experience I have learnt that there is no optimal method for designing a recovery protocol and it is definitely not a one size fits all approach. There has to be flexibility that allows the athlete to take ownership of their recovery and lifestyle. It is also key that consideration is given to the psychological as much as the physiological component of recovery.