Optimising recovery in sport and fitness is of paramount importance particularly with quick turnarounds between games and the aim to push harder towards fitness goals.
The high levels of activity both professional athletes and gym goers undertake can very easily lead to high levels of muscle soreness and general full body stiffness. This can very easily have a negative effect on performance and potentially even lead to injury if you are going into competition not optimally prepared.
The problem is recovery is often overlooked because it is not as flashy as squatting 200kg and being able to post it on Instagram for your follower’s admiration. People fail to see the value in recovering effectively until something goes wrong!
That’s why the key to recovery is simple – be consistent!
Be consistent with both your recovery and your training. Sound strange that I am writing a piece about recovery yet I am telling you to train consistently? Well, I am sure we all know the pain of DOMs (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) after our first legs session back after a break away from the gym. The muscle soreness can last for 2, 3 even 4 days. Well that is because your musculoskeletal system has been placed under a rapid increase in mechanical stress leading to breakdown of muscle fibres meaning it has to work extremely hard to recovery and rebuild your muscles. On the other hand if you have been training consistently the level of mechanical stress placed upon your musculoskeletal system is not spiked meaning your body is in a better position to deal with the demands of rebuilding any breakdown of muscle and you are able to recovery far quicker.
Consistency with recovery methods goes hand in hand with consistency of training. Think of it as a cumulative effect. Recovery methods enhance your body’s ability to deal with the effects of mechanical stress and muscle breakdown. Your body will recognise the effects of your training and know how to respond effectively to optimise recovery. Our bodies are creatures of habit, they will develop habits to protect themselves by recovering from stress placed on them and we have a number of ways in which we can enhance our body’s natural recovery methods.
Below I discuss the 5 Pillars of Recovery I use with my athletes to optimise their recovery.
5 Pillars of Recovery
Possibly the most overlooked, yet most effective recovery strategy – sleep! Modern day life is not conducive to effective sleep patterns. Our lives consist of MORE, MORE, MORE yet we don’t share the same belief for sleep. I encourage my athletes to aim for 6 cycles of 90 minutes sleep over a 24 hour period! This may be 1.5 hours during the day and 7.5 hours during the night. Research has shown that these 90 minute cycles are essential enter REM sleep where we get the majority of the benefits from sleep. This is not only physically, effective sleep also has a positive impact on us psychologically and emotionally both of which are key to optimising recovery and subsequent performance. Are you getting your 6 cycles of 90 minutes?
NUTRITION (& HYDRATION)
Right up there with the importance of sleep is nutrition! Appropriate nutrition following exercise can vastly reduce the amount of muscle soreness you experience and speed up the recovery process. There are a number of BULK articles that provide you with invaluable information on the specifics of sports nutrition telling you what is best to eat and when so make sure you check them out.
Below are 3 of my recommended products:
Pure Whey Protein™ – Contributes to the growth and maintenance of muscle mass. I would recommend the Chocolate Cookies flavour.
ZMA Capsules – Containing zinc & magnesium which have been found to have positive effects on sleep quality and feelings of low mood.
High Protein Flapjacks – Easy to carry, packed with protein and carbohydrates these bars are perfect post exercise fuel. Plus they taste great!
You can personally do a huge amount to positively impact your recovery! Rest is essential but active recovery is just as important to optimise your recovery and reduce muscle soreness. There are a number of active recovery strategies I use with my athletes:
30 Minutes Foam Roll & Mobility Routine – Focus on the areas you have trained. If you have played a game focus on the major joints and any areas of soreness.
30 Minutes Yoga – Not only will you benefit from the stretch session you will also allow yourself to relax.
30 Minutes Swim, Bike or Walk – Low intensity exercise to slowly increase your blood flow and encourage the removal of waste products. Swimming also has a compressive effect which I will delve further into shortly.
Passive recovery includes strategies you can use that require no additional effort. Although they can be pretty brutal, especially jumping in an ice bath! These strategies should not form the basis of your recovery strategies but they should complement good sleep, nutrition and active recovery. Passive recovery strategies include:
Compression – I encourage my athletes to wear compression leggings immediately post game and even sleep in them overnight. Compression also includes pool recovery whether you are stretching or swimming.
10-20 Minutes Ice Bath or Contrast Bathing – Ice baths and contrast bathing encourage what is known as vasoconstriction. Vasoconstriction is when blood vessels narrow essentially pumping blood and waste products around the body to encourage their removal. When contrast bathing the warm bath following the ice bath again encourages the blood flow back around the body further increasing the removal of waste products.
30-60 Minute Massage – Massages can have a positive effect on relaxation of your body & mind whilst also improving the quality of your soft tissues (muscles, fascia etc.).
The final and possibly most surprising pillar to see is relaxation. There is an emerging body of research identifying the link between subjective feelings of stress, sleep quality, readiness to perform and the likelihood of experiencing an injury. Relaxation is something I push heavily with my athletes and have seen positive effects on recovery and performance. Many of the previous pillars include strategies that will encourage relaxation such as walking, yoga and massage but enjoying time with friends and family is just as important. One big thing I try to implement with athletes is 10 minutes of mindfulness (check out the Headspace App for guidance!) per day. Within that mindfulness I encourage nasal breathing which has been found to optimally oxygenate the body but more on that another day!
About the Author
Alex Morrell (MSc, BSc (Hons), MCSP) is a Sports Physiotherapist working in international and professional rugby alongside private practice. He has a keen interest in all things training & performance from his sports science/S&C background. (@theonlinephysiocoach)