We’ve all seen the ads on Instagram, right? The Shakti Mats, massage guns, recovery boots – they all promise new levels of recovery and performance - but for a price. Recovery products make up a growing portion of the multi-billion-dollar sports medicine market. With such large sums of money at play, how do we know who to trust? Every year, we are presented with a new wave of pioneering devices. As the catalogue of choice bulges, how do we separate the wheat from the chaff?
Clearly, there is a need to distinguish between a measurable benefit and a perceived benefit when we consider recovery practices. Sometimes, these will overlap. Importantly, I am not trying to devalue activities that cannot, perhaps yet, demonstrate a measurable benefit. Indeed, anything you perceive to be beneficial likely is, in some way or another. However, if you wish to develop a robust recovery protocol, I would suggest that its foundation should be built on things that have a measurable benefit.
Before I get into the specifics of what you can do to recover well, it’s worth highlighting what exactly this means. To me, recovery means homeostasis. Whatever we do to recover, the goal is to facilitate a return to a state of balance. It is from this state of balance that we are able to cope with the challenges of additional training load. Personally, I would extend this definition to include both physiological and psychological balance; body and mind. Your body can be a fine-tuned machine, but if your mind isn’t there with it, you’re going to struggle. As an athlete, there may be times when you need to recover psychologically more than you do physically, or vice versa.
With that said, I’m going to consider 7 recovery practices, all of which I have had first-hand experience. All of them have, at some point, been prescribed to me by national leaders in strength and conditioning, performance nutrition and sport psychology. While I don’t implement all of them all of the time, they certainly form the foundation of my recovery protocol – particularly during times of competition.
1. Reduce your workload (aka Passive Recovery)
This one is fairly common-sense, but like most things, if you get the basics right, you won’t go too far wrong. It underpins several fundamental principles of high performance sports like deload periods, tapering and peaking. This can mean reducing the number, duration or intensity of your training sessions. Or, at times, it might mean taking a complete break from training. While I wouldn’t recommend this for prolonged periods (as it can lead to detraining and loss of those hard-earned adaptations), sometimes a total break is necessary and of benefit. Notably, this recovery practice offers both a measurable and a perceived benefit. Reducing training intensity produces a demonstrable increase in physical capacity but also, in my experience, makes you feel fresher, more motivated and eager to tackle the next challenge.
Ensuring adequate quality, quantity and consistency of sleep is a veritable pillar of recovery and, much like reducing the workload, carries both a perceived and measurable benefit. Test somebody after depriving them of sleep and their performance markers plummet. Give them an undisturbed sleep of adequate duration and they will feel and perform much better. I have previously said that there may be times when you just need to ‘get up earlier’ to train. Certainly, I have been known to sacrifice sleep when I deem it necessary. My views on this haven’t changed. However, doing this on a regular basis can be harmful.
If your aim is to promote recovery, sleep needs to become a priority. This means not only spending enough time in bed, but also aiming to be as consistent as possible in the times you sleep and wake. We all know what it’s like to feel jet-lagged. If your sleep and wake times are all over the place, you’re putting yourself though a ‘social jetlag’ that makes it difficult for your body to recover well and perform at its best.
Maximising the quality of your sleep boils down to good sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to any pre-bed rituals that help you sleep soundly. Things like reducing screen time, wearing an eye mask or ear plugs, reading in bed, meditation etc.; all of these can help make sure you wake up feeling rested. I have previously discussed the Whoop strap on my Instagram. This handy bit of tech offers a way to easily track the impact of your sleep hygiene habits on your recovery.
Protein is the most important element of your diet when it comes to recovery. If you want to maximise its impact, make sure you’re eating enough of it and at the appropriate time. So, what is enough protein? 0.4-0.5g/kg body weight as a post-training bolus will suffice. For me, this means a serving of 30-40g protein. In practice, this equates to a bit more than a pint of milk or a large chicken breast. Ideally, this should be consumed as soon as possible after training – certainly within 90 minutes.
Sticking to this timeline can be challenging. This is one reason you might decide to have a whey protein shake after a training session – convenience. It’s fast, easy and practical when you’re on the go. But that’s not the only reason athletes use whey. It is also a particularly high-quality source of protein. It contains all the amino acids, is highly digestible and also has high-levels of vitamins and minerals. What’s more, the option of consuming whey in liquid form as a protein shake may side-step satiety issues. This can help improve dietary compliance when athletes are consuming a surplus of calories for hypertrophy training blocks.
So, are protein shakes a must-do? No, you can still consume sufficient quantity and quality of protein from whole foodstuffs. However, whey protein can make it significantly easier. One final tip for getting the most out of protein is to combine it with a source of carbohydrate. This helps with transportation – the process of getting the digested protein from your gut, into your blood and around the body to the tissues that need it. So, maybe have a banana with your protein shake too!
4. Active Recovery
This one is perhaps a little counter-intuitive, but it is something that has featured in my training from very early on. Active recovery could be described as low-intensity exercise. It is designed to encourage slow, controlled movement of muscles and joints through their full range of motion. Personally, I have always enjoyed swimming as an active recovery session – particularly the breast stroke. You can do it very slowly to keep the intensity low. It allows full, unrestricted movement of your hips and shoulders and it’s about as low-impact as you can get. Floating around in a giant, warm bath is also super relaxing for your mind!
Preventative rehab (prehab) sessions can also play a role in active recovery. These are generally shorter, quite specific gym sessions that aim to prevent injuries. Prehab for me has always involved an amount of foam rolling and static stretching. Some consider these 2 activities to be of little value for recovery – the existence of a measurable benefit is indeed controversial. Regardless, I quite enjoy them. They feel good and can help draw your attention to areas that feel tight, sore or overworked. This can be valuable information if you’re training very regularly. I suppose this is a classic example of how a perceived benefit can preserve the value of an activity even in the absence of a clear, measurable benefit.
5. Sodium Bicarbonate
Yup, you read it right – baking soda! As bizarre as this might sound, sodium bicarbonate can indeed improve recovery from high-intensity exercise. It has a measurable benefit. One drawback, however, is that it can lead to gastro-intestinal distress (nausea, abdominal cramps etc). You don’t want this standing on the start line of a 100m sprint! This doesn’t happen to everyone though so it’s worth a try – just make sure to trial it in training first.
A typical dosage regimen for an adult male would be a 15g serving in water taken 3 hours before exercise. Personally, I have always taken it with a sports drink on advice from my nutritionist. This apparently helps to minimise GI symptoms; indeed, I did not suffer with them at all really.
6. Montmorency Cherries
This particular type of cherry has also demonstrated a measurable benefit in recovery, particularly when it comes to DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). It’s much easier to consume than the sodium bicarbonate; the Cherry Active brand comes in a handy 30ml sachet for dilution in water and consumption immediately post-exercise.
Personally, I would not say that I noticed a marked improvement in DOMS when I used this but it’s something that has been validated so it’s worth mentioning. At the very least, it’s a source of electrolytes and fluids which will do your recovery no harm anyway.
Have you ever found that the harder you try to do something, the less success you have? Perfecting new skills requires an amount of focus and attention to detail. Too much of these things can actually hinder progress, however. Fun helps to loosen your grip. It gives your mind a breather, lets it disengage from the task at hand for a bit. This can be crucial for the psychological end of recovery. It keeps your motivation high which, incidentally, is noted by Anders Ericsson as a key element of deliberate practice.
What’s more, in forcing you to take a step back, having the craic can encourage a broader perspective, a wider focus. It keeps your mind open. This can yield new insights that you otherwise might have missed. Personally, I have found this to be very impactful both acutely when on the water, but also in a more long-term sense when making decisions around plans for travel and training. I suppose you could say that it has a strong perceived benefit. You’d be surprised what you can learn when you’re just messing about! So make sure that your training sessions are not 'all work and no play'. The same goes for rest days; try not to become preoccupied with 'recovering like a pro'. Do something for no other reason than it's fun.
While this list is not exhaustive, it covers the primary elements of a well-rounded recovery scheme along with a few less widely-known, more niche recovery practices. As I have said, recovery is homeostasis. It’s a balancing act and at times it will require a more focused effort. Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas to expand your recovery armamentarium.
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