Where should you invest your time and money when it comes to recovery?
Should you be down at the beach in the middle of winter, jumping in ice baths, getting multiple myotherapy session and regular massages and wearing your compression tights? Or should you just train harder if you want more results?
Once I started researching this post it became clear that there was a lot of information to dig through and therefore, this is by no-means the final word on recovery, just my take on what I’ve uncovered.
Let’s start with the point of recovery.
Recovery is the time that the body adapts to the stress of exercise and where the real training effect takes place. Recovery also allows the body to replenish energy stores and repair damaged tissues. Think of it as a way to effectively make use of, or maximise any training you’ve been doing. It also prepares you to train again and is important from an injury prevention and general health and wellbeing point of view.
Whilst there are almost endless possibilities out there for you to potentially do, and plenty of people making a dollar from selling recovery aids. There are 2 major factors that should be the pillars of any recovery plan and where you should put most of your time. Have these 2 under control and you’re well on the way. You can then think about the ‘other stuff’, but think of it as bonus if you have the time and money etc…
Let’s get into it!
During training you are probably aiming to produce a stress on the body in the hopes of a specific adaptation (fitter, stronger, faster etc). That specific adaptation does not take place during the actual training, it occurs when the body is resting and sleep is probably about the best rest you can get.
Unfortunately somewhere along the way, functioning on less sleep has become a point of pride. We all know someone who revels in letting you know they don’t need any more than 4 hours a night… Let’s touch base with that person in a few years time and see how they’re going.
Lack of sleep can disrupt every physiological function in the body and we have nothing in our biology that allows us to adapt to this behaviour (coffee doesn’t count unfortunately). Google “lack of sleep” + “(insert disease name here)” and you’ll quickly realise that sleep deprivation interferes with almost all of your bodily systems and can contribute in part to stress, obesity, inflammation, cancer, heart disease and diabetes (apologies, I’m getting off track).
From a recovery point of view, sleep is important for repair and adaptation, it also aids with injury prevention and can increase performance if you get enough of it.
– This study of adolescent athletes showed that “the strongest predictor of injury was ‘less than 8 hours of sleep per night’. Sixty-five percent of athletes who reported sleeping less than 8 hours per night were injured, compared with 31% of athletes who reported sleeping more than 8 hours per night.”
– And this study found that basketball players who increased their sleep to at least 10 hours were able to sprint faster, shoot more accurately, and had improved subjective ratings of physical and mental well-being.
The recommendation is for a solid 8 hrs uninterrupted. I’m more than aware that in certain situations – parenthood and shift work to name a couple this may not be achievable. Aim high when it comes to sleep. It is the number 1 thing you can do to maximise your recovery and from a general health point of view a lack of sleep isn’t good at all.
Let’s just say that adequately fuelling your body after exercise and in general will go a long way towards helping you recover from your training and aid you in achieving your goals. It’s definitely more important than wearing some fancy compression tights and jumping in an ice bath.
There is even some data suggesting that “those who met recommendations for eating enough fruits, vegetables and fish were 64% less likely to report injury.” It’s definitely worth ensuring that from a general health point of view and then a recovery point of view that nutritional recommendations are met.
There are definitely increased energy demands after training and when dealing with injury and the main point when considering nutrition and recovery is to make sure you’re fuelling your body with what it needs.
I’m not here to tell you how or what to eat, there are plenty of people far more qualified to do that than me. If you feel you need assistance in this area, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with someone who can help out. What I am telling you however, is to actively think about how you fuel yourself as part of your plan.
When I set out to write this post – the main aim was to point out that you don’t need fancy or expensive recovery devices and that by sticking to the basics (quality sleep and nutrition) you’ll achieve most of what you’re setting out to do. I did initially forget one other basic recovery tool – active recovery. It still won’t make up for a lack of sleep and poor nutrition but is a relatively easy and cost effective addition.
According to this study from the American Council on Exercise and Western State Colorado University, active recovery done at moderate intensity is best for the performance of endurance athletes. In the study, researchers had two groups of people either run or cycle at an intensity in which they couldn’t speak until they fatigued. Afterwards, they recovered by either slowing to 50 percent of their max effort or resting completely.
The results were pretty clear: “Runners who used active recovery were able to go three times longer than those who used passive recovery the second time they ran. And cyclists who used active recovery were able to maintain their power output the second time around, whereas the power output of cyclists who used passive recovery decreased.”
Some other commonly used recovery tools worth mentioning.
The options below may be useful additions to your recovery but are not well supported by the currently available research and your main focus and energy should be put into sleep and nutrition along with some active recovery.
Once you’ve got your sleep and nutrition worked out you may want to look at a few other options to aid your recovery from training. But… I must emphasise that at least 90% of your recovery efforts should be focused on sleeping well, refuelling well and generally resting up when you need to. The below items should only be considered after that.
There’s no doubt a good massage is good. I’ll be the first to put my hand up and agree with that, and there is some research suggesting it’s a good way to reduce muscle soreness and perceived fatigue. But, it seems that massage’s effect on recovery is more based on the perception of feeling better rather than any drastic change in the body. It’s never a bad thing to feel good, I’m just pointing out what we think is actually happening or not happening in the body in this case.
The research available appears to be mixed too – With this study concluding that ‘The effects of massage on performance recovery are rather small and partly unclear’. And going on to say ‘but it can be relevant under appropriate circumstances (short-term recovery after intensive mixed training). However, it remains questionable if the limited effects justify the widespread use of massage as a recovery intervention in competitive athletes.’
Another study (that I have misplaced the reference for), noted that 100% of the intervention group (those that received massage) were able to complete the 10km run at the end of the 10 weeks of training, compared with the control group who received no massage, where only 58% were able to complete the same 10km run. In addition, even though pain experienced by the subjects did not differ between groups, the massage therapy group perceived that they managed and dealt better with the pain associated with increased running.
To sum all that up…
If they’re a regular part of your recovery regime then keep it up. If they’re not a regular part and you have no issues there’s no urgency to rush out for one, but it might be worth considering adding in to give you a boost along the way.
The fad for compression gear has been going strong for a few years now, and shows no sign of abating and whilst the research continues to pile up, it remains full of gaps and contradictions.
I wrote a whole blog post on this a few years ago, and it seems that not much has changed research wise. This was my conclusion then – “While some studies find physiological benefits, such as increased blood flow, increased muscle oxygenation, decreased lactic acid build up and decreased muscle oscillation, the theoretical benefits from this don’t necessarily translate to noticeable performance benefits in all cases.”
This study of well trained rugby union players does conclude “Wearing compressive garments during recovery is likely to be worthwhile, and very unlikely to be harmful for well-trained rugby union players.” If the best we’ve got is ‘unlikely to be harmful’ then we’re probably clutching at straws
Once again, just like massage – there seems to be some benefit to wearing compression garments in terms of less ‘perceived’ soreness, and that may be reason enough to get a pair. (Plus – I like to wear them as an added layer of warmth in winter.)
Ahhh… the dreaded ice bath. This may be great news to you if you’re like me and not a fan of the cold – The University of Auckland recently concluded – “Our study found ice baths are no more beneficial than a simple low intensity warm-down at reducing inflammation and muscle damage after intense exercise.”
Not only do ice baths not combat inflammation, an earlier study by the same international research team showed they may actually reduce the benefits of training hard, with smaller gains in muscle mass and strength following weight training.
I don’t think we’re going to see Ice Baths disappear from elite sporting recovery routines anytime soon and if you’ve been using them as part of your plan and feel that they’re a worthwhile addition then go for it. It might be worth however, considering if they’re really necessary. Plus… they’re bloody uncomfortable and that’s enough for me not to jump in.
One extensive meta-analysis specifically looking at stretching and preventing muscle soreness, included over 2,500 participants and concluded “that post-exercise stretching for recovery only reduced the effects of muscle soreness by 1-4 points on a 100-point scale (1-4% improvement). Despite this figure being statistically significant, the effect is very small. As such, post-exercise static stretching may have little, to no, worthwhile effect on muscle soreness.” On the flip-side, perhaps every little thing counts?
There are probably a few good reasons to include stretching as part of your routine tho.
– Relieving Stress
– Managing Blood Sugar Levels
– Muscle Growth
As I mentioned early on in the piece, the best bang for your buck recovery tools you have at your disposal are probably the simplest 2. Ensuring you have adequate sleep and adequate nutrition. There is little supporting evidence for many of the other popular recovery modalities.
This study on recovery modalities found “there is no compelling scientific evidence to support the use of contrast temperature water, immersion therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, compression garments, stretching, electro-myostimulation, and combination modalities”
If you need help with your recovery, book an appointment and we’ll put a plan together for you!