Factors that can influence recovery
In the previous post, I discussed different elements that lead to fatigue accumulation in training. After finishing up the explanations on what causes fatigue, I left the recovery modalities a bit vague and open ended. And although the end result of this post may result in the same, I wanted to revisit some of the recovery tools that a lot of athletes and trainees utilize, and discuss their practicality.
Athletes have their work cut out for them in modern society, not only are they devoting 10-15 hours a week to sport practice and an additional 5 hours to athletic training; they also need to sleep a minimum amount each night, as well as be dialed in on their nutritional habits. On top of this, they are expected to recover enough between each session to be ready to go the next day. When athletes think about recovery strategies, some of the most popular methods that come to mind include ice baths, massage, foam rolling, and stretching or yoga. Additional approaches include cryotherapy, saunas, heat pads, steam rooms, electric stimulation (e-stim), epsom salt baths, theraguns, supplemental drinks, cardio, compression gear, normatec, and the list goes on. There are some great options listed here, and others that are lacking in support. I want to preface this discussion by mentioning that some of these tools/practices may be beneficial in other circumstances, but for now we are only concerned with how they affect recovery from training.
Almost all of the recovery methods listed above are effective for the same handful of reasons. Typically what is advertised or marketed for a product, isn’t the genuine reason it supports recovery . The factors that influence recovery typically fall back to:
It causes vasodilation or enhances blood flow
It causes vasoconstriction and anti-inflammatory effects
It temporarily masks pain or improves your perceived state
It relaxes you from a psychological standpoint
It reduces muscle soreness (either acutely or long term)
Let’s start our list with a lot of the temperature-based treatments, which we can split into hot or cold treatments. Cold treatments include ice baths, ice packs, cryotherapy, etc. Typically these work by reducing the flow of blood in the surrounding tissues, this vasoconstriction can reduce swelling as well. The benefits of cold application may be decreased perception of pain & fatigue, possibly due to the anti-inflammatory effects. If you take an athlete who has trained recently and is feeling a bit beat up, and put them in an ice bath for 20 minutes, they’ll probably get out feeling cold & stiff, but any pain they were experiencing before is likely numbed. The same results come from other cold treatment options as well, some are just more accessible than others (unless you go out of your way to find a facility that offers cryotherapy equipment - which likely isn't worth the cost). Cold treatment is best applied after the workout or within a couple hours, but probably isn’t a tool you want to rely on using all the time. A good time to implement ice baths may be in-season when the athlete has multiple games/competitions within a week, and simply needs to recover between bouts without worrying about other adaptations.
Moving on to heat applications; warm baths, heat packs, and saunas or steam rooms are some of the more well-known options available. Opposite of cold treatment, heat application increases blood flow to the tissues which also results in higher rates of oxygen delivery, and removal of waste products such as carbon dioxide and lactate. The benefits here include decreased muscle soreness, decreased perception of pain & fatigue, and depending on temperature the warmth may also provide psychological and muscular relaxation. Unlike cold treatment which is best applied immediately (within a few hours) following the workout, heat application is likely best used a few hours removed from the workout. Considering that after a training session you’ve likely already increased body temperature and blood flow resulting in some tissue swelling, you don’t want to immediately jump into a sauna and make these issues worse. As with cold treatment, a 20 minute session is probably optimal. In regards to both heat and cold, it’s important to keep in mind that every individual has a different tolerance to temperatures, so you may have to ease into treatments.
The next handful of recovery tools we’ll tackle include compression gear and electric stimulation. These methods both result in increases in blood flow to tissues, and lower perception of pain/fatigue like some of our other methods already discussed. Compression gear refers to tight apparel worn on different areas of the body (nowadays you can likely find compression gear for any area you need such as shirts, shorts, elbows/shins, tights, etc). Compression gear can also refer to equipment such as the Normatec, which sends waves of pneumatic (air) pressure across certain areas of the body when attached. With the apparel, you are compressing a certain area of the body to increase blood flow and oxygen delivery to the tissues applied. Whereas with the normatec, you are letting the waves of pressure throughout the limb increase blood flow. Both can result in a psychological relaxation effect as well. Electric stimulation (such as TENS units, Marc Pro, Compex, etc) applies electrodes to the muscles to which cause contraction to produce similar effects as the ones above. Keep in mind that these tools are more expensive and the normatec or e-stim machines will require you to be stationary for a longer period of time as well. If used, they are probably best applied multiple hours away from the workout.
Finally, we’ll briefly touch on foam rolling, stretching, yoga, massage, and related methods. Foam rolling and stretching are probably the most utilized recovery methods out there, however both show little support that they actually produce effects on recovery. Both can potentially reduce soreness acutely, but any benefits derived from them are likely coming from the psychological relaxation effect. If you like to stretch or foam roll for a period of time because you think it feels good, it’s probably not doing any harm and can be beneficial for you. However if you are constantly stretching or foam rolling with the intent of recovering even though you don’t enjoy it, you can probably remove it from your routine altogether and be better off. Yoga is along the same lines here. If you are pursuing yoga for other reasons - then by all means go for it. But, if you are only fitting it into your day for recovery purposes you probably aren’t getting the intended effect. With all of these methods, relaxation is the biggest variable. If you are put into a more relaxed state due to the modality, then the psychological benefits may be worth it and lead to a lower perceived state of fatigue. These methods are tricky and can have entire articles written for themselves, so we’ll keep it a bit ambiguous for now.
To come to a conclusion, there are hundreds of different recovery tools out there that may help enhance recovery. How and when they are applied are definitely important, and vary from method to method. Most methods will result in one of the five bullet-point factors listed earlier in the article. Its up to you to decide whether a certain modality is worth your time or money, and whether or not you think it will actually help you feel relaxed. The easiest ways to recover are to reduce stressors in your life (outside of planned stress such as training), and plan your training appropriately (apply principles of overload as needed, deload when needed, and auto regulate your training). If you have a coach, they should be taking these factors into account for you. As for myself, I like to train hard throughout the week and then take the weekend off to mentally and physically prepare myself for the next week of training. I make sure I’m eating and sleeping the right amount, and I’ll add in some low-intensity active recovery from time to time such as walking or riding a bike when I want to. I don’t pursue many of the modalities listed above if I don’t have easy access to them. Occasionally I enjoy a massage when training is getting really hard, or a normatec session as I have them available to me at my facility. Choose the methods that work best for your lifestyle and don’t pursue an option that will carry added stress with it.
Prepare to Succeed,