Wow, I am sore! After a long period not training, I was highly motivated over the weekend and set off for a 5km run and to my surprise completed it in great time. I was on a high due to my performance.
The next day was a different story. I woke up and struggled to walk 5m, let alone 5km, without feeling soreness everywhere and I mean everywhere… it felt like my eyelids were sore.
Having worked across several professional clubs both nationally and internationally I started to reflect on the various recovery strategies that I had been exposed to. Over the years I have noticed that those who perform at the highest level don’t simply train harder than anyone else – they are also obsessively dialed into their recovery strategies, to maximise their capacity to perform when needed.
Below are some common strategies I have discovered during my time working with professional athletes, along with the current evidence on these strategies.
Cold water immersion:
The dreaded ice bath would strike fear into most athletes I have worked with. It has been utilised due to its ability to reduce the perceptions of muscle soreness and reducing inflammation. A study of 32 professional football clubs across Europe found that 88% of all teams used some form of ice bath recovery regime post games for similar reasons. The recommended time in an ice bath can vary between 2-15 minutes and the temperature can vary between 12-15° depending on the individual’s tolerance (a common guideline is 11 – 15° for 11 – 15mins). There are several benefits with using an ice bath but always remember if you see a penguin swim past it may be a little too cold!
(Disclaimer: important that any cold water immersion activity be done strictly under supervision).
Skins, Linebreak, 2XU, Under Armour and Total Compression are all examples of brands that make a variety of compression garments. It is believed compression garments assist with increasing blood flow, decreasing lactate and decreasing the perception of DOMS (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness). The jury is still out with what actually occurs, but further studies are continually being done. Despite this most professional clubs use compression wear, and it is still a recommended tool especially while travelling and during rest post training and games.
Active recovery, more commonly termed the ‘warm down’, can include stretching, light intensity exercise and a range of movement activities, to name a few. These are aimed to assist with reducing lactate and restoring the body’s range of movement. There have been several studies that have shown this has very little effect on recovery and overall player performance. Despite this many professional clubs to this day still utilise active recovery as part of their programs and have found it effective with maximising recovery. So, despite its inconclusive benefits, it is still recommended that while you are having the classic post-game chat about the ref’s performance, you may benefit from some active recovery to set you up for next week’s game.
Strategies to maximise mental recovery have often been disregarded when it comes to overall athlete recovery. Most recently there has been emerging evidence and a greater adoption of mental recovery strategies by professional teams and athletes due to its ability to increase overall perception of recovery. It is becoming more common to find practices such as mindfulness, meditation, sensory deprivation tanks and focus breath work as part of an overall recovery protocol for athletes. If these methods of mental recovery are a bit “hippie” for you, then simply minimising exposure to stimulation such as phones, TV and social media, plus setting time to debrief with support networks, can also have a positive effect on mental recovery.
Most professional footballers I’ve worked with enjoy a massage after a game. Professional clubs have often seen massage as being beneficial in reducing inflammation and decreasing muscle soreness. However, there is very limited research that supports this. There is some evidence however that has shown it can increase the individual’s perception of recovery. What this means is that the actual effects of massage on the body are still inconclusive, but the players report they feel much more recovered post massage. Whether massage is of benefit to you will be more to do with individual taste, time and cost.
What you put in your mouth is considered to be one of the main factors in enhancing recovery. The above study of 32 professional European football teams found up to 97% of clubs also believed that what you consume has a major effect on maximising recovery. 1.2 to 1.5L of hydration for each kg of weight loss over 6 hours following a game is suggested. Rapid ingestion of carbohydrates, proteins and amino acids during the next 24-72 hours post matches is also important. Examples of drinks that are used at the A-League level to assist with hydration include Gatorade and Powerade. Chocolate milk and/or berry juice post match have also been popular choices due to the benefits of improving hydration and providing some of the recommended carbohydrates, proteins and amino acids. A well-balanced meal that includes some form of protein such as meat, fish or chicken with vegetables are ideal meals to maximise your recovery and are better choices than the classic trip to the local drive-through.
Getting a good night’s sleep is arguably the most important factor in maximising recovery post games. Sleep can assist with not only the body’s ability to recover properly but has also been associated with mental recovery. It has been found that players who have a good night’s sleep have better decision-making skills, improved learning and has a positive effect on mood. It is widely recommended to have 7-9 hours of quality sleep. This means it is important to establish a bedtime routine, set up your sleeping environment (cool, dark, quiet and comfortable) and minimise alcohol and caffeine consumption late in the day which has been shown to disturb the quality of your sleep. So, when maximising your recovery post training or a game, don’t feel too guilty sleeping in a little when the sun rises the next morning.
As you’ve seen there are a variety of different approaches used at a professional level to maximise your recovery. Despite the variety in strategies, the take-home message is to first focus on the ones that provide most benefit and choose recovery strategies based on what you can do regularly and effectively. Consistency is far more important than finding the perfect recovery program. Always remember a GOOD program that you DO is better than a PERFECT program that you DON’T DO!
Below I have attached a ‘Recovery Buffet’ that I developed and use with athletes, which is a table you can download and quantifiably monitor your current recovery methods. This will allow you to input and tally your recovery choices as well as provide you with some insight on areas that you may want to improve on.
PDF – Recovery Buffet
Luis has worked with several A-League clubs and has spent time working internationally with Cirque du Soleil. He is currently seeing patients at Excell Physio between teaching at ACU and working as a physiotherapist for Football Australia. If you would like further information on what to do to make the most of your recovery strategies or would like to book an appointment with Luis, feel free to call Excell Physio on 07 3395 7155.