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  • Martin


As athletes we know that getting enough rest after exercise is essential to high-level performance, but many of us still over train and even feel guilty when we take a day off. The reason that rest is important is that the body repairs and strengthens itself in the time between workouts. We don’t become stronger, faster or more resistant during our workout, but after the workout when we conscientiously follow an optimal recovery protocol.

Recovery is important both from a physical and a psychological point of view. On the purely physical side the organism needs to repair damaged tissue such as muscles and cartilage while at the same time replenishing it’s energy stores and optimum levels of hydration. Recovery allows the body to build up glycogen stores and allows tissue repair to occur. Without sufficient time to repair and replenish, the body will continue to breakdown from intensive exercise. From a purely psychological point of view, continuous exercise will induce a state of staleness, general ill feeling and possibly depression.

It is clear that not training or exercising is the easiest form of recovery but that is clearly not conducive to preparing for optimum athletic performance. Therefore it is a generally accepted practice to utilise methods that can assist and promote recovery in a reasonably short time span. The most common methods are Hydrotherapy, Active Recovery, Stretching, Compression Garments, Massage, Sleep and Nutrition.


The human body responds to water immersion with changes in the heart, peripheral resistance and blood flow, as well as skin, core and muscle temperature alterations. It has been theorised that changes in blood flow and temperature response may have a positive effect on inflammation, immune function, muscle soreness and perception of fatigue.

The most common forms of water immersion are cold-water immersion (CWI), hot water immersion (HWI) and contrast water therapy (CWT), where the athlete alternates between hot and cold-water immersion.

From the various studies that have been carried out, there do seem to be advantages to the use of hydrotherapy, particularly following high intensity efforts. In particular CWI and CWT appear to be more beneficial than HWT.

Active Recovery

An active recovery generally consists of aerobic exercise that can be performed using different modes such as slow running, cycling, or swimming. Active recovery is often thought to be better for recovery than passive recovery due to enhanced blood flow to the exercised area and clearance of lactate and other metabolic waste products via increased oxygen delivery.

No detrimental effects on performance have been reported in the comparison between active recovery and passive recovery, between training sessions. A limited number of studies have reported enhanced performance. However many of these studies used the removal of lactate as their primary indicator of recovery and this may not be a valid indicator of enhanced recovery and ability to repeat performance at a previous level.

Active Recovery is anecdotally reported to be one of the most common forms of recovery utilised by the majority of athletes due to the perception of decreased lactate concentrations and a reduction in muscle soreness.

Compression Garments

Many recovery strategies for elite athletes are based on medical equipment or therapies otherwise used in clinical situations. Compression clothing is one of these strategies. Compression garments have been traditionally used to treat various lymphatic and circulatory conditions, as they seem to improve venous return through application of graduated compression to the limbs from proximal to distal. The external pressure created may reduce the intramuscular space available for swelling and promote stable alignment of muscle fibres, attenuating the inflammatory response and reducing muscle soreness. There are very few independent studies into compression garments and recovery for endurance athletes however the small amount of data suggests that they may be beneficial and do not appear to be harmful to the recovery process.


Massage is quite widely used as a recovery strategy among athletes. Undoubtedly there are perceived benefits of massage on muscle soreness, however very few studies have shown any positive effects on repeated exercise performance.

A number of studies have concluded that massage is almost certainly beneficial in improving psychological aspects of recovery, but do not support massage as a modality to improve functional performance.

Nonetheless massage may have potential benefits for injury prevention and healing. Most athletes would be wise to incorporate massage into their training programme.


Stretching is anecdotally one of the most used recovery strategies, however very few, if any, studies report the benefit of stretching as a recovery strategy. A number of studies have concluded that there is no benefit to stretching as a recovery modality.

At the same time it is important to note that to date, there have not been any reports of detrimental effects on performance, associated with post exercise stretching.


As was mentioned at the beginning of this article training damages muscle fibres and depletes glycogen stores. Following the correct nutritional strategy in an accurate and consistent manner after workouts will help restore muscle and liver glycogen stores, replace fluid and electrolytes lost in sweat, promote muscle repair and bolster the immune system. It has been shown in numerous studies that athletes who optimize post-exercise nutrition will perform better in their next training session and accumulate more high quality sessions than athletes skipping post-exercise nutrition.

It is generally considered an optimum strategy to ensure an adequate intake of nutrition within a 30 minute window following the end of an intense or long training session. Further ensuring that correct nutrition and hydration is maintained in the 2 to 3 hour period following a training session is also recommended.


On average we sleep for anything between 25 to 35% of our lives. Why we sleep and why it is so important has been a mystery for most of human existence however recent research is shedding more light on this extremely important activity. For those who wish to read more about sleep I would highly recommend “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker.

What is extremely clear is that restricting sleep to less than 6 hours per night for four or more consecutive nights has been shown to impair cognitive performance and mood, disturb glucose metabolism, appetite regulation and immune function. This type of evidence has led to the recommendation that adults should obtain a minimum of 8 hours of sleep per night.

For athletes this is even more important since impaired cognitive performance increases the perception of effort and limits physical performance leading to sub par training and/or racing. In particular sub-maximal prolonged activity seems to be more seriously affected than short maximal efforts.

Both physical and mental recovery are negatively effected by even partial sleep deprivation.


Recovery is an essential part of the training cycle and program. It is important that each individual athlete experiments with various strategies in order to identify their own optimum approach.

Without doubt nutrition (and hydration) together with sleep are the most important elements. On top of these each individual should experiment with additional recovery protocols such as active recovery, compression garments, hydrotherapy, massage and stretching in order to ascertain which combination of methods works best.

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