Terry Favero, PhD, is Professor of Biology and Conditioning Coordinator for the women’s soccer team at the University of Portland. He has also worked with the U.S. Olympic Development Program, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every athlete and every coach understands that hard work is a key to success. Athletes looking for an edge will train harder in an effort to outwork their opponents, teams going through a slump will try to “train their way out of it” by ramping up practices and workouts, and many athletes view working to exhaustion and beyond as a badge of courage and a sign of ultimate commitment.
But there’s another component of athletic success that’s too often overlooked, and that’s recovery. When athletes do too much or coaches push too hard, the regimen eventually becomes counterproductive–the body wasn’t designed to work without adequate rest. Evidence of this imbalance isn’t hard to find: In a recent survey of published literature, I found roughly 30 articles championing various training methods for every one article about the role of rest and recovery in the adaptation process.
Planned recovery takes many forms, from improving sleep habits and eating patterns to scheduling days away from the gym that allow for regenerating tissue and rejuvenating the mind. Too many coaches spend their time scripting daily and weekly training programs, yet fail to strategize for recovery and regeneration with the same depth and precision.
Science has proven that proper recovery facilitates faster physiological adaptation and enhances performance. Ignoring recovery today leads to tomorrow’s poor practice session and, eventually, poor recovery habits that are tough to break. It also reinforces attitudes that can lead to overtraining injuries. But by taking advantage of planned recovery and making it an integral part of a comprehensive training program, you can help athletes experience the gains that elude them when they work hard, but not smart.
STATE OF AFFAIRS
Most high school and college athletes understand at least the basics of appropriate recovery. If they haven’t learned it from coaches, health classes, or other educational sources, they’ve at least felt the soreness after overworking their muscles, the fatigue from working out without proper fueling, or the overall misery of trying to function on too little sleep. And still, most athletes fail to follow an optimal recovery strategy.
Today’s student-athletes must balance demanding training schedules with complex personal, social, and educational demands. The pressures of daily life are rarely factored into an athlete’s total training or overall workload, but they’re a major factor in the individual’s health and well being.
What happens when an athlete has too many commitments and not enough time to meet them all? Recovery is usually among the first things to suffer. Rather than cut short a training session, they might skip a post-workout meal. Instead of missing practice to study for an exam or complete a class project, they’ll sacrifice a few hours of sleep that night. In the long run, these decisions take a serious toll, both physically and mentally, and performance begins to decline.
To better understand the current landscape surrounding this issue, I recently conducted an informal survey of high school and NCAA Division I athletes, examining nutrition, sleep, and recovery behaviors. While not scientifically rigorous (the sample size was only 40 people), the results provide an interesting snapshot that’s probably typical of many athletes in these age groups.
Nutrition. I found no significant differences between high school and college athletes in eating habits–both were equally poor. Half the athletes skip breakfast at least once per week, while 20 percent said they miss it several times per week. Sixty percent reported missing other meals occasionally as well. Perhaps most troubling, only 46 percent of the athletes said they regularly eat within 60 minutes after completing exercise.
Sleep. On average, most high school and college athletes get far less than the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. In fact, 38 percent of college freshman athletes in my survey get less than seven hours in a typical night. Sleep is one of the most frequently mismanaged recovery habits among athletes of all ages, and the consequences are immense.
Regular recovery activities. My survey showed that in general, high school athletes do more in terms of recovery activity than college athletes, but only when directed to do so by their coaches. Essential recovery activities include (but are not limited to) a daily cooldown, especially following demanding workouts, active re-stretching or lengthening of the most active muscle groups, and post-workout rehydration. In addition, foam rolling and deep static stretching should occur at least twice weekly apart from normal practice times.
In the survey group, 52 percent of high school track athletes used a foam roller daily, compared with 18 percent of college track athletes. And 88 percent of the high schoolers stretched daily, compared with 53 percent of the college athletes. However, I found that in general, unless the coach leads a team through specific recovery activities, most athletes are consistently inconsistent in their recovery choices.
The above data should sound an alarming note: Recovery behaviors for both high school and college athletes need serious attention. Athletes develop training habits at an early age, and most carry these habits–good and bad–into college sports. College often provides a wake-up call, since talented and healthy athletes might not have experienced any real consequences for poor habits in high school or club sports, where practices are far less demanding, competitive seasons are shorter, and athletes can get by on pure skill even if they’re not performing at 100 percent.
SET OF SOLUTIONS
Most of the athletes I surveyed said they rarely talk or think about recovery. Typically, no one tells them to monitor training and recovery activities, or to account for non-athletic stressors when planning their daily or weekly schedule. For that reason, it’s easy for them to ignore recovery habits until fatigue, underperformance, or injury set in–and by then, they’re forced to play catch-up.
To improve this situation, all coaches and athletic trainers should be aware of recovery deficiencies and work constantly to teach athletes sound recovery strategies. This is especially important for incoming freshmen at both the high school and college level, since they’re experiencing many lifestyle changes and have a great opportunity to incorporate new and better habits.
In college, most athletic programs offer some form of academic guidance to ease the transition to college. This same concept can be applied to recovery education–eating habits at dining halls and on the road, sleeping patterns amid the newfound freedom of campus life, and recovery activities that fit into the college workout and practice schedule should be essential points of emphasis.
Once an education program is in place, athletic trainers and coaches should devise a system to monitor recovery activities and reinforce good habits while modifying bad ones. (See “Recovery Scoring Guide” for one example.) A sound monitoring system can also help athletes adjust their overall workload–athletic and otherwise–to a level that optimizes recovery.
Education and monitoring are the two prongs of a successful recovery strategy, but implementing them can be a major challenge. I recommend basing your program’s recovery efforts around a specific continuum of habits to consistently remind athletes about the value of recovery on a daily, weekly, season-long, and yearly basis. Here are the essentials:
Teach the concept. Recovery is a frequently misunderstood term. Many athletes think it’s about what they do immediately after a practice session. Others think recovery is a state of being, and they’ll say they feel “recovered” after a practice or game and don’t need to do anything specific. But recovery isn’t about short-term activity or physical condition–it’s a systematic and comprehensive program designed to maximize health and performance.
Athletes must learn that true recovery encompasses several different responsibilities, including hydration, nutrition, sleep, and psychological or emotional well being. To experience all the benefits of the body’s complex recovery mechanisms, an athlete must establish and follow routines that provide consistent and adequate amounts of fuel, physical rest, and mental “time off.”
Cool them down. The recovery process should begin as soon as the active phase of practice or a workout concludes. Coaches often call athletes together to summarize the day’s work, provide guidance for upcoming sessions, or prepare the team for competition. In most cases, athletes are then dismissed and they scatter–some get water, some do extra sport-specific work, and others head to the locker room or home to get on with their busy lives. What’s missing is an essential component of promoting team-wide recovery: cooldown.
Structured cooldown activities address both physiological and psychological recovery. Most coaches recognize the physiological benefits, such as reducing blood lactate level, but few consider the psychological benefits, such as dampening nervous system activation. Slowly reducing the heightened state of the nervous system after athletic participation can lead to lower overall stress levels and more regular, restful sleeping patterns, particularly after evening workouts or practices.
An easy and effective cooldown can involve simply modifying the dynamic warmup used to begin practice. For instance, the athletes I work with perform a warmup that generally consists of eight to 12 dynamic stretches of the major muscle groups, conducted while constantly jogging and progressing to running. For the cooldown, we perform almost the same set of stretches, but instead of transitioning from a jog to a run, we wind down from a jog to a walk. We hold the stretches for up to 20 seconds, and sometimes stretch the same body area more than once–for instance, if the day’s workout focused largely on the hamstrings, we’ll conduct two different hamstring stretches. I let the athletes select the cooldown stretches they want to perform, keying in on the body areas most in need of recovery.
Kick-start restoration. Two of the most important restoration steps are post-activity treatment, such as hydrotherapy and massage, and immediate rehydration. To promote physical restoration, athletes can take simple steps such as contrast showers (alternating between hot and cold water) or warm showers coupled with self-massage. Contrast showers provide neural stimulation, while a 10-minute warm shower with self-massage promotes blood flow to muscles and overall relaxation. These strategies can help an athlete leave the sports environment alert but calm, and ready to transition to the next phase of the day.
Hydration can best be addressed with sports drinks, which provide fluid along with electrolytes and carbohydrates. Water is an acceptable alternative, but is less advantageous because it can’t replace electrolytes such as sodium lost through sweat. The electrolytes in sports drinks also help to speed absorption of fluid from the gut after ingestion. A good rule of thumb on rehydration is that athletes should take in enough fluid to more than replenish what they lost from sweating. If it’s possible for athletes to weigh themselves before and after a workout, this provides an easy guide for how much fluid must be consumed.
Refuel for recovery. Research has shown that carbohydrate replenishment should begin within 60 minutes of the end of training in order to promote maximum muscle glycogen restoration. During this 60-minute window, muscle membranes are primed for glucose entry and rebuilding, which essentially means faster muscle recovery. Delaying the post-workout meal will mean low glycogen stores the next day, which results in decreased muscle performance and lower overall energy.
Following a heavy workout, research suggests that athletes should get between 1.0 and 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per hour for at least two hours or until the next full meal. Some athletes don’t have a strong appetite right after workouts, so energy bars are a great way to bridge the gap until mealtime. A typical energy bar contains 40 to 50 grams of carbohydrate, and may also include protein that helps speed glycogen replacement in exhausted muscles. A 150-pound athlete is roughly 68 kilograms, so an energy bar and at least 24 ounces of a sports drink after workouts provides a great start to nutritional recovery.
Sleep matters. A growing body of research is revealing the importance of sleep for recovery and mental and physical performance. Adolescents and young adults are notorious for haphazard sleep schedules, and they probably don’t realize the negative toll it takes on their health and athletic performance.
The best advice for sleep is quite simple: Give yourself a bedtime and stick to it as often as possible. The body functions best when sleep habits are consistent. Once athletes establish a set routine that provides eight hours of sleep per night, they’ll find that they fall asleep faster once their head hits the pillow, and they probably won’t even need an alarm clock to get up at the same time each morning.
Think short- and long-term. Daily, weekly, and mid-season rejuvenation planning can make a huge difference for individual athletes and entire teams. On a daily basis, athletes need structured downtime. They should be constantly reminded that daily activities like listening to music, reading for pleasure, and taking short naps can do wonders for the nervous system, promote relaxation, and give the musculoskeletal system a break.
On a weekly basis, athletes should consider receiving a massage, performing some form of active recovery such as yoga, cycling, or swimming, and perhaps playing a sport other than their main sport to stay active but enjoy a break from structured training. In the middle of the competitive season, coaches might consider an occasional extra day off, a three-day weekend, or perhaps team activities such as barbecues or group walks during road trips. When rejuvenation-centered steps like these are neglected until stress and poor habits result in declining performance, it is often too late to change course and make any material difference.
The monitoring system (above) was initially developed as part of a program called the Total Quality Recovery System to help prevent overtraining in competitive athletes. The authors recommend that recovery behaviors be scored as a tangible indicator to help athletes avoid overstress. This particular version of the program has been modified to fit the needs I’ve discussed here.
The system addresses all the critical areas of recovery, and research suggests that athletes who average 17 daily recovery points or more experience less fatigue and adapt more quickly, while those who average 14 or fewer recovery points are prone to maladaptive habits and overtraining. I have found that athletes like using a point system and may even engage in good-natured competition to see who can score higher, pushing each other toward better habits in the process.
Implementing this system has allowed me to provide focused education about each of the components of proper recovery and its specific benefits. This makes the athletes more conscious of their recovery behaviors, and they’ve told me that when using the scoring guide, they are far more deliberate about their recovery than when not using it.
The guide can be implemented in several ways depending on what best fits a team’s schedule and routines. I use it intermittently with athletes at key junctions when I sense recovery may be compromised. With new athletes, the first step is to establish a baseline during the summer or non-competitive training season, typically with two weeks of data. Then, I’ll monitor recovery at critical times during the year, such as during the transition to the competitive season, during planned increases in workout volume or intensity, or in the weeks leading up to major competitions. It can also help athletes keep on track during stressful non-athletic times, such as midterms.
When athletes focus on their recovery as a team, with support and guidance from coaches and athletic trainers, they can experience tangible gains in the weightroom, during practice, on the scoreboard, and in virtually every aspect of their lives. By teaching them that what they do when they’re not running drills, lifting weights, or competing in their sport is just as important as the time they spend training and developing their skills, you can change the culture of an entire program and put athletes on the road to greater success.