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'Recovery from training is one of the most important aspects of improving athletic performance', (Bishop et al., 2008)

Often a sport requires its elite athletes to perform repeatedly over a short time period, for example in the 2008 Beijing Olympics Swiss tennis player Roger Federer was drawn to play 11 matches in 7 days. Some sports with higher bodily impact, such as Rugby, demand repetitive high performance during tournaments. The former Wales captain, and Heineken Cup winner with Toulouse, told BBC Sport in 2007: "In France, and England, the top players play week in, week out..... In every World Cup year, the fixture congestion is magnified and intensified...”. Optimal performance is only achievable if athletes recover after competition and optimally balance training stress and adequate recovery (Kuipers, 1998; Rowbottom, Keast and Morton, 1998). It goes without saying that when competitive fixtures are congested, the recovery process should be optimized (Reilly and Ekblom, 2005). The aim of this article is to provide information to competitive athletes on best practise for recovery.

We train or coach to improve levels of performance, to define ‘training’ you might say that ‘training presents challenges to enhance the body’s ability to cope with higher physiological demands’. But how can your body deal with higher intensity demands when it hasn’t properly recovered or adapted from the last bout? Researchers (Bishop et al., 2008) have defined recovery from a practical perspective, to mean the ability to meet or exceed performance in a particular activity.

A good coach knows what is being stimulated during training and what is being fatigued (Calder, 2003). The figure above has been referenced from Calder (2003). It gives a simple clear picture of what is happening to the body’s performance ability. If an athlete routinely trains hard without adequate recovery when the body is still fatigued either psychologically, or physiological the result often leads to; over training, burnout, or injury. It is well accepted that over-load is necessary for improvement, whereas overtraining results in a breakdown at some level, thus impairing, rather than improving performance (Calder 2003). A successful positively effective training programme is one that balances the ‘overload’ principle. The challenge for coaches has been to identify what capacities are fatigued, and what strategies should be used to recover from this fatigue.


Calder (2003) identifies 4 key areas of fatigue that must be awarded sufficient time to recover within a training programme;
  • Metabolic Fatigue – energy stores

  • Neural Fatigue – peripheral nervous system (force production) and central nervous system (drive/ motivation)

  • Psychological Fatigue – emotional and social stress factors

  • Environmental Fatigue – climate

Recovering Metabolic Fatigue
The most important nutritional considerations for recovery relate to fluid and fuel replacement strategies (Burke, 2000). Up to 60g of carbohydrates and 20g of protein are essential nutrients for recovery immediately post performance (approximated to a 60kg female at medium intensity session). In general a ratio of 4:1 carbs to protein should be taken in within 30 minutes of completing the exercise bout. Timing is important! This early replenishment can come in liquid, or meal form. Chocolate milk is an convenient method for this, however ensure you read the label. Weighing in before and after a session is a good monitor of fluid lost. Aim to replace every 1kg of weight lost during a session with 1.5L of water and some electrolytes. Nutritional supplementation should be used with caution and before taking anything, sound scientific advice should first be sought as to the needs and doses.

Recovering Neural Fatigue
Rest days are essential for body systems to recover and adapt. The type of recovery is dependent on what training has been done and to what extent. Cross-training is a good form of active rest provided the work intensities are modest (light aerobic) and the exercises undertaken can be different to those normally performed in training. Hydrotherapies or access to; spas, physio, and massage can also help the athlete recover in some form.

Recovering Psychological Fatigue
Sleep is probably the most important form of recovery an athlete can have. During sleep many hormonal actions take place; such as the release of human growth hormone which helps with reparative damage to tissue. For an adult 7-9 hours is recommended whilst 8-10 hours is recommended for children. If these hours are unattainable then arrange your day to try fit in a ‘power nap’ for an 30 – 90minutes, this will leave you feeling fresher and physically recovered to carry on with the rest of the day or get that 2nd or 3rd session in.

Environmental Fatigue
Switch off! Find a distraction; socialise, spend time with friends, listening to music, or meditate. Training or thinking of your sport day in day out is not healthy for anyone. Take time out of the training programme to do something totally different or random, and get away from it all.

This article can’t cover the scope of research out there and be expected to give you all the do’s and don’ts. However, what we can do is advise you on best practise. So here is a summary of clear evidence from the literature;
  • Not enough time is spent planning ‘recovery’ into a training programme.

  • Recovery is a principle of training, and thus a factor of performance.

  • The training ‘session’ is the stimulus; an adequate recovery period is essential for optimal adaption and improvements to be made.

  • Recovery is a broad term that consists of sub-categories such as; recovery between reps/ bouts, recovery between sessions, pre and post race recovery, recovery week/ training block.

  • Recovery strategies must cover all aspects of the body affected by training. Follow the ‘R’s; Restore fluid and energy homeostasis, Repair muscle damage, Reduce neural and psychological symptoms of fatigue, such as anxiousness and irritability, and Rest from Repeatability.

  • Inadequate recovery results in counterproductive training, and often overtraining/ burnout.

  • Athletes should keep a training log or even just note in a diary to monitor and plan a recovery strategy into their training.

Sneaky tips that you already know and you should do!
  • As a coach observe for simple indications of fatigue such as; body language, communication, behavioural characteristics, and performance.

  • Physical markers of fatigue can be easily measured using a strength exercise, questionnaire, or by monitoring body state.

  • Always keep a training log, even if it is just a couple of words about your session it is the best way for you or the coach to see; if you are progressing, going nowhere, over trained burnt out, or ready to race!

  • Athletes/ coaches/ therapists can get caught up in the latest fashion accessory of the sport scene; these methods of recovery equivocal reports on their effectiveness can inhibit and/ or delay the implementation of proven solid basic cost effective methods of recovery.

If you require any further information feel free to contact me at Riverview Clinic 061 4550006 or lynne@riverviewclinic.ie

Lynne Algar MSc Exercise Physiology
BSc Sport and Exercise Sciences
PhD Researcher
Physical Therapist
Triathlon Coach

Riverview Clinic