Recovery from any kind of athletic performance, has come a long way over the years. From the days when drinking beer and smoking cigarettes were a way of saluting victory, before heading off to work for a week, we have reached an age where recovery is an essential part of performance, and thanks to advancements in science and technology, we have a wide variety of recovery modalities to choose from. Through what we see on TV, newspapers and social media, elite athletes use a huge number of recovery methods, from advanced technology (Cryotherapy, compression pants), cruel and unusual methodologies (needling, acupuncture, full ice baths) and good old fashioned trips down to the beach. Advertising, social media and first-hand accounts can make the recovery picture very blurry, and people often get caught up with the latest and greatest technique, without covering the basics. This article is here to tell you the science behind recovery, where it all fits into the picture, and to help you make better informed choices when programming your recovery.
Pic 1- Len Dawson Smoking at Halftime of Superbowl 110
“Formula 1, the fastest sport on earth, is won by those who learn how to take pit stops most effectively. The same principles apply to humans” Professor Damian Hughes3
Hans General adaptation theory
I want to explain a bit of the background behind recovery and adaptation. Back in 1946, a man named Hans Selye, who theorised exercise to be a “stressor”, which in large doses, could harm or kill an organism1 . He wanted to observe what a sub-lethal dose of training would do, and what happened within the cell. His premise was that when a stress (exercise) is applied (to a human), the response will be an adaptation (increase in fitness/strength/power etc.) to compensate for the next stressor2 . Essentially, your body says ‘oh damn that was stressful. I need to prepare myself for the next time, so I can better handle it’. If the stress is too great, the body will not be able to adapt, and will go into exhaustion, or over training. Below is a nice graphic demonstrating how this theory plays out
Fig 1. “Stages of General Adaptation Syndrome”, Richard, R. 20166
Now you can understand why recovery is so important. While the training is the stressor, where we prompt an adaptation response, the recovery phase is where the actual adaptation occurs. It therefore represents half of our training emphasis, at least according to our body. It is literally where we improve, where we get better, and neglecting it is hurting athletic progress no matter how you cut it. Many people under-utilise this, and are only looking forward to the next training session, or how to next to work their bodies, without understanding how much benefit a proper recovery plan can help.
“Failure to recover sufficiently from the continuous demands and stress of life, training and competition can lead to a cycle of impaired performance and accumulated fatigue” Nick Grantham3
So what now? I’ve explained the why, but I have not stepped into the how. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, recovery can be a very simple thing. Put as simply as I can: Eat well, sleep better and look after your body & mind. This obviously glosses over a lot when it comes to how to do so, but when we observe the recovery pyramid3 , it becomes clear why we need the basics to become our major focus.
Fig 2. “The Recovery Pyramid v.2” Grantham, N. 20133
“But what about ice baths? And Hydrotherapy? Skins?! Have I been wasting my time?” Short answer, no. These will not necessarily harm performance, but if we are discussing the most effective ways to recovery from performance, nutrition, body management and sleeping form the pillars of our success. It is easy to get caught up in the latest craze, as we have seen people do time4 after time5 , which is not to say they don’t work, but they tend to be minimally effective, and very expensive, where the most effective tools are always at our disposal.
“Unless you get the basic pillars of recovery right (Sleep, nutrition, hydration) the benefits to be gained from any other modalities, no matter how hi-tech, will be minimal” Chris Barnes Msc3
So where does this leave us? We know we need to sleep better, eat better, utilise body management techniques, periodise & plan our training with ongoing monitoring, and throw in some hydrotherapy or icing when required, but how do we do that? The aim of this article was to explain the why and how of recovery, so practical applications for each recovery method are beyond the scope of this article. However, I will provide some basic recommendations, and provide links and information to further research areas where required.
- Get Minimum 7-8 hours of sleep
- Minimise screen time before bed 3,8
- Have a bed time “Routine” 3,8,9
- Nap between sessions or in the afternoon7
- Eat enough Protein (………)
- Healthy servings of Fruit & Veg 3
- Cut down on processed foods & Refined Sugars 3
- Drink plenty of Water!
- Seek further advice- Nutrition is highly personal and dependant on the person
- Passively rest
– Listen to music
– Meet with friends
– “Chill Out”
- Actively rest
– Walk the dogs
– Flexibility & Mobility Training
Periodisation & Monitoring
- Plan rest days & Recovery sessions
- Change training based on performance and Fatigue levels
- Monitor physical and mental readiness
- Avoid over-training!
This is a very simple approach, with some basic tips which will hopefully go a long way. It is not always about trying to latest and greatest thing, but often about mastering and manipulating the key fundamentals which not only gives us the greatest benefit, but allows us to reap marginal gains from alternative therapies like hyrdro/cryotherapy.