If you’ve ever watched a multi-day sporting event and marveled at the athletes’ ability to recover for the next day, you’re not alone. Whether it’s Wimbledon, the Tour de France, or the World Cup, the ability of the athlete to perform maximally for multiple days is one of the primary determinants of success. As a coach or medical professional, utilizing certain recovery strategies can help give your athlete(s) an advantage as the tournament progresses into the final, more meaningful, days. Such strategies can fall under the categories of nutrition, training techniques, and device utilization. We’ll briefly review some of the more useful ways to promote recovery in athletes.
The importance of nutrition cannot be overstated...
The food consumed by the athlete provides the metabolic building blocks that will be used to repair the damage done to the body during competition. An athlete with a diet devoid of nutrients will set up his body for failure. Conversely, a nutrient dense diet will aid in supporting the various processes which allow adequate recovery for another match or race. The best approach to using nutrition for recovery is to ensure a well-balanced diet. A plate full of vegetables, proteins, carbohydrates, and healthy fats is a requirement. There is no use supplementing a poor diet with protein shakes and vitamin pills. The athlete must consider nutrition to be an integral part of their training regimen. However, once a balanced diet is achieved, there are some additions which might aid recovery.
Lately there has been much written about Low Carbohydrate High Fat (LCHF) diets for athletes. While this may have it’s place for a “fat-adapted” metabolism, I will not delve into this here. For athletes with a more traditional diet, a focus on carbohydrate (and subsequently, glycogen) repletion has been shown to aid in day-to-day recovery. This is not to say that overeating sugars and refined carbohydrates is a good thing! But there may be a role for increasing lower-glycemic carbohydrate sources such as sweet potatoes. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) can be supplemented as well, as this will minimize the breakdown of muscle when exercising and provide the components necessary to proceed with recovery between sessions. Antioxidants such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Omega-3s may be helpful in moderation also.
Recovery and training techniques...
With regard to training techniques, there are a few things to take into consideration during a tournament. First, there is no fitness to be gained during this time. Days between games should be used for recovery and maintenance of range of motion. There has been minimal demonstrable benefit from stretching, at least in the research, but it may help. Perhaps the best, and often over-looked, method of encouraging recovery is a simple post-exercise cool down. Of all the techniques and devices which have been studied, this basic and inexpensive method has the best evidence behind it. In cycling, you will routinely see riders spinning easily on a stationary trainer after a hard stage in the mountains. This is not because they hope to get a few more minutes of training! Rather, the five or ten minutes at very low intensity helps shift their metabolism back to one of recovery rather than racing. In other sports, a simple jog or spin on a stationary bike will have the same benefits.
A lengthy and restorative sleep is of utmost importance as well. This is best achieved without pharmacologic aid, but it can be difficult for athletes to fall asleep at the end of an intensely competitive day. Practising appropriate “sleep hygiene” (cool environment, dark room, no computers or TVs prior to sleep) and utilizing gentle aids such as melatonin can be very useful. When the athlete awakens the next day, recording a resting heart rate or measure of heart rate variability can help the athlete, coach, and doctor know how well-recovered they are.
As the value of recovery has become more well-recognized, there have been a number of devices designed to speed the process. Cooling in ice baths or with ice vests, muscle compression with garments or pneumatic devices, and electrical stimulation have all been peddled as performance enhancers. There is minimal evidence to support any of these. The benefit seems mostly to be subjective (ie the athlete has less soreness and feels less fatigued in the days after competition), but that’s not to say it’s unsubstantiated. An athlete’s subjective recovery is certainly important to their performance, so these devices surely have their place as well.
In the end, it is the basics that must receive attention in order to optimize recovery. A healthy diet, a good night’s sleep, and a simple post-workout cool down are the foremost keys to ensuring maximal recovery. That’s good news to the individual athlete or the club without funding for the latest and greatest devices! As with so many things in sports, it is the fundamentals which lead to wins.
Written by Dr Kevin Sprouse of Provision Sports Medicine
Dr. Kevin Sprouse is a sports medicine physician in Knoxville, TN, USA. He has board certifications in both Sports Medicine and Emergency Medicine, in addition to a degree in Exercise Science. Dr. Sprouse can be contacted at Provision Sports Medicine, where he operates his clinic and a sports performance laboratory. He is also a team physician for Team Garmin-Sharp Pro Cycling.