The importance of recovery for sportsmen and women of all disciplines
When planning training programmes for athletes, it is easy to write down sets, reps, times, volumes, intensities and loads. However, structuring a recovery programme to effectively allow adaptation to take place between training sessions is a lot trickier, as James Marshall explains.Before we look at how recovery can be optimised, it’s important to understand why it’s important. This is crucial for both coaches and athletes; coaches because they are going to have to plan time and resources to assist recovery, and athletes because they are going to have to implement the strategies.
According to ‘supercompensation theory’ (see figure 1), after the body has been exposed to a stressful situation, providing that adequate recovery has taken place, it will adapt and become stronger(1). Without further exposure to this stimulus, the body will soon return to its previous state. However, if further training takes place during the supercompensation phase, then more work or higher intensities can be tolerated. But if training takes place too soon, recovery is incomplete, less work can be done and the athlete risks fatigue, injury or burnout
Fatigue comes in different forms, including central, peripheral neural, hormonal and psychological; the recovery process therefore needs to target all these different areas. Different aspects of fatigue require different amounts of recovery, and it is very difficult to balance these recoveries. For example, competing in a final of a competition may actually be physically easier than a training session, but the emotional, psychological and hormonal stress will be much greater and this should be taken into account when planning post-competition training.
Where recovery is useful is in trying to reduce the time between training stimulus and supercompensation. Inadequate recovery strategies will mean that you’re not prepared to train at the next session; instead of enhancing training status, another session actually puts you back. There are some times when inadequate recovery might be planned, such as on a training camp for a few days, but this must then be followed by a few easier days to allow supercompensation to take place. However, during hard competitive phases of the season, time might be one thing the coach doesn’t have, so enhancing the recovery becomes crucial.
Comparing recovery strategies
Which recovery strategies are best in a realistic training environment? Researchers from Australia looked at recovery interventions on netball players following a simulated netball circuit training session(2). The players performed the same circuit on two consecutive days and followed one of four recovery interventions:
- Passive recovery;
- Active recovery;
- Cold water immersion (CWT);
- Contrast water therapy.
All four of the interventions were performed for 15 minutes, with the passive recovery group sitting still for all that time. The active recovery group performed low intensity exercise at 40% of their maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max), while the cold water immersion subjects sat in a cold bath (9.3C) up to the top of their hip bone for 5 minutes, followed by 2.5 minutes out of the bath – repeated twice. The contrast water therapy group also sat in a similar temperature bath, but this time for 1 minute, then had a warm shower (39.1C) for 2 minutes and did this five times in total.
Recovery was assessed by subsequent performance (20m sprints, vertical jumps and total circuit time) as well as measurements of lactate, heart rates, ratings of perceived exertion and muscle soreness. The results showed that there was no difference statistically in performance on the two circuits or on the physical measurements for any of the recovery interventions (the fact that there was a whole 24 hours of recovery time between the two sessions may account for this, and that the circuit was challenging, but not maximal).
However, there was a difference in perceptions of recovery; the subjects who did cold water immersion and contrast water therapy perceived themselves as better recovered. This may be important as it shows the relevance of mental recovery in the process. It also highlights the need to keep recovery strategies tuned to the individual.
Another study on netball players also found no difference in performance following an intervention – this time using compression tights(5). The subjects did five sets of 20 drop-jumps from a 60cm height, followed by an immediate jump up as high as they could, with a 2-minute rest between sets. The two recovery interventions were either wearing compression tights for 48 hours afterwards or just wearing normal clothing.
The results showed that there was no difference in performance between the groups in subsequent sprint tests; both groups ran slower 48 hours after the drop jumps than before. However, perceived muscle soreness was lower in the compression garment group compared to the control group after 48 hours. There was also a slight reduction in CK levels (see box 2, below) in the female compression garment group after 24 hours compared to the controls, but no difference after 48 hours. Moreover, subjects who used compression tights reported that the tights were uncomfortable at night, as they raised their body temperature and disrupted their sleep.
By contrast, a study on New Zealand provincial rugby players found that compression garments did help reduce CK levels compared to passive recovery(7). Contact sports such as rugby and boxing have been shown to produce higher levels of CK following the match, than in similar training sessions with no contact(8,9) so CK is definitely a useful marker of measuring fatigue in these sports.
The rugby players followed one of four recovery protocols post match:
- Passive recovery (sitting on the bench for 9 minutes);
- Active recovery (7 minutes’ cycling on a stationary bike at 80-100 rpm);
- Contrast water therapy (CWT – 3 sets of sitting in a bath of cold water [8-10C] for 1 minute followed by hot water [40-42C] for 2 minutes);
- Compression garments – wearing compression pants for 12 hours post-match.
CK levels were measured immediately post match and then subsequently at 36 and 84 hours post match. A comparison between peak levels and the levels at 84 hours was then made. The fastest recovery was found in the active group, with the CWT and compression groups also showing fast levels of recovery. The passive condition showed the slowest level of recovery by some degree.
The nature of science investigations is to isolate one intervention at a time and to compare each intervention against a control group. However, it’s interesting to speculate if a combination of active recovery and CWT or compression garments worked better than one intervention alone. What is clear in this study was the short duration of all the post-match interventions; it could be surmised that a longer active recovery session would have resulted in an even further reduction in CK levels at 36 and 84 hours post match.
Implementing a recovery strategy
Coaches and athletes tend to fall into one of two camps: the ‘throw every resource we have at this, and implement everything together’ camp or the ‘let them get on with it’ camp. If you are a recreational athlete who trains on a Tuesday and Thursday, and competes on a Saturday, then you will have about 48 hours between sessions to recover naturally. Muscle glycogen can be restored through normal eating and most indicators of muscle damage such as creatine kinase will probably have returned to normal levels before your next training session. In short, recovery will likely take care of itself!
However, if you train or compete more frequently, then you’ll need to do something to aid the recovery process. If you’re a coach, it is probably best to have some ‘non negotiable’ recovery processes in place for the whole team:
- An active warm-down immediately after competition/practice has finished;
- Fluid and fuel replacement within 15 minutes of finishing the session;
- Some form of water therapy such as showers, contrast showers, contrast bathing, depending on facilities;
- A proper meal within two hours of finishing.
Depending on budget and the distance to travel home, compression garments could also be useful. Wearing compression tights is easy enough (although there is an initial cost) and many athletes like the comfort of wearing them. However, they shouldn’t be worn at night because they can potentially disrupt sleep, which will hinder recovery. Table 1 shows the pros and cons of different recovery strategies.
The importance of nutrition in recovery is beyond the remit of this article (this topic has been covered extensively in previous issues of PP). However, it’s important to understand that carbohydrate, fluid and protein replacement is critical for speedy recovery. So, when looking at the physical aspects don’t forget that they will be more effective with fuel and fluid intake. The importance of sleep should also not be overlooked; if all else fails, getting a good night’s sleep should be first in the athlete’s mind!
Remember, too, that the psychological and social aspects of recovery are also important in the recovery process. The individual’s social and psychological preferences when recovering need to be taken into account. For example, some athletes might relax by taking a trip to the park as a group. For others, spending even more time with teammates could be an additional stressor and hinder the recovery process, so quiet time with a book or listening to music may be more appropriate. So-called ‘team building’ sessions maybe counterproductive for some athletes; stress can be created if these sessions take them away from their home environment for too long, causing relationship stresses, or placing them with teammates for longer than usual!
The use of CWT is also interesting, as plunging into a cold bath may not be to everyone’s tastes and could add to the stress of post-match trauma. The sudden immersion into cold water stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and actually invigorates the athlete. Gradual cooling may be more suitable for some because it stimulates the parasympathetic system and will calm the athlete down(10). It’s also worth adding that although other forms of heat therapy, such as saunas and jacuzzis, may feel relaxing if used a few hours after training, they should not be used immediately afterwards as they encourage dehydration.
Adaptation and personal preferences
As with any other form of training, adaptation to the recovery strategies will take place. The more you use a form of recovery, the more likely it is that after a certain amount of time, you will adapt, which will reduce the response and benefits. Instead, coaches should get their athletes familiar with recovery strategies such as CWT, but only in small doses. Then at the time of most need, such as in a tournament phase, you can use it much more intensely so that it stimulates the recovery process.
However, it’s important to emphasise that a successful recovery strategy needs to consider the athlete’s personal preferences, with the athlete being involved in planning their recovery strategies throughout the season and off-season. Of course this has to be done in conjunction with the coach and other support staff, but the athlete has to be familiar with and 100% comfortable with the choices made. If a coach introduces new methods the day before a competition, it will only lead to more stress for the athletes.
Recovery is essential in order to allow the body to adapt to the stresses of training and competition. Simply doing nothing may be okay for those who train two or three times a week, but for more serious athletes and those involved in contact sports, a recovery plan has to be put into place. The other tools here are important, but without good nutrition, sleep and relaxation they will be of limited value.
James Marshall MSc, CSCS, ACSM/HFI, runs Excelsior, a sports training company
1. Bompa, T. Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics (2001)
2. JSCR 23 (6), p 1795-1802 (2009)
3. Kellmann, M. & Kallus, K.W. Recovery-Stress Questionnaire for Athletes; User manual. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics (2001)
4. JSCR, 22 (3), p1015-1024 (2008)
5. JSCR 23 (6), p 1786-1794 (2009)
6. Isr J Med Sci, 31, 698-9 (1995)
7. Br J Sports Med 40, p260-263 (2006)
8. Med J Aust 1 p467-70 (1981)
9. Int J Sports Med 6 p234-6 (1985)
10. Kurz, T. Science of Sports Training. Island Pond, VT: Stadion (2001)