Don’t wait until you have an injury to make time for recovery. Here are the best recovery and preventative strategies to turn you into the ultimate recovery machine. Start using these simple strategies right now and save yourself a lot of time, money and pain.
Structure Your Training
It’s important to plan and schedule your training. Focus your efforts so you can achieve your peak potential, depending on the time of year, your goals and your strengths and weaknesses. Individual daily workouts should be structured to maximize your training time and ensure nothing is left to chance. Include build and rest weeks into your training to improve performance while preventing injuries.
It is also smart to include activities that will keep you physically and mentally fresh, such as group workouts, skill sessions and some unstructured training as well. Be mindful of how your body feels before, during and after your workouts and keep a written record of these observations to prevent training downtime.
Remember previous injuries and patterns to catch most problems before they get out of hand. It is much better to take a day or two off initially then it is to be forced to quit training for a week or two due to inflammation or pain. It has been shown that exercise performance can begin to decline quickly after periods of prolonged rest. This can really slow the performance gains you’ve planned for the course of the season.
The best scenario is to prevent injuries before they happen. Your body usually sends messages that something is wrong before there is a catastrophic failure. You need to learn how to interpret these messages.
If you are unsure about how to structure your workouts, ask for help. Hiring a coach is easier than ever. Make sure you look for a certified and qualified person to take you to the next level. There are plenty of shops, teams and clubs to provide camaraderie and local advice.
Recovery Tactics and How They Work
Nutrition and Hydration
Food is fuel and needs to nourish us. Proper timing of the right fuel is needed to repair muscles and manufacture new muscle protein. Protein nutrition and hydration will also refuel liver and muscle stores of carbohydrate energy (glycogen), improve joint function and contribute to important cellular repair. The immune system is also built up to handle challenges if properly fueled.
Fluid losses have been shown to diminish both mental and physical capacity. Poorly hydrated cells will not synthesize proteins, which can slow muscle tissue repair and recovery.
It has been well documented that it is best to replenish lost glycogen stores within the first 30 minutes to two hours after exercising. Depending on your size, it is recommended to consume at least 50-100 grams (200-400 calories) of carbohydrate with protein within two hours after hard exercise along to aid recovery. The best choices for these foods are unprocessed whole foods, which are nutrient dense.
A static stretch takes a joint to its end range of motion (ROM) and holds it there, allowing soft tissues to elongate over time. It is best to hold a static stretch between 45-60 seconds. Holding stretches longer than that have been shown in some studies to decrease strength and power prior to an event, possibly having a detrimental effect on performance.
Static stretching may have some benefit for injury prevention if a decrease in range of motion has been evaluated. It can also decrease muscle soreness making the next training session feel easier. An example of static stretching for the quadriceps includes grabbing the ankle while drawing the foot toward the glute and holding 45-60 seconds. Be sure to bend the knee as far as possible and extend the hip back behind you without tilting your pelvis and arching your back.
Taking a muscle through a controlled movement and a full active range of motion is becoming more common in the warm-up prior to an event. These dynamic stretches can increase body and muscle temperature, nerve conduction velocity (how quickly the message to fire a muscle gets through) and has been shown to have circulatory benefits. An example of dynamic stretching for the quadriceps includes standing buttock kicks.
PNF Stretches: (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation)
This type of stretching uses the body’s hardwired protective mechanisms (reflexes) to gain flexibility and allow the muscle to relax. The hold-relax technique is used by contracting the muscle for 2-5 seconds prior to lengthening it in order to allow the muscle to relax completely and gain increased length. The reciprocal-inhibition technique is used by contracting a prime mover muscle or agonist (quadricep), which sends a message to the muscle that does the opposite motion (hamstrings) to relax. In theory, the stronger you contract your quad the more the hamstring will relax in order to protect itself from damage. Using a strap to pull your straightened leg back for a hamstring stretch while contracting your quad with a 2-5 second hold followed by a short static stretch is an effective stretch, not only for the muscle but the soft tissue supporting the nerves, muscle bundles and vascular support. Runners and cyclists both can benefit from this type of stretch.
The fascia (connective tissue) that surrounds all muscle fibers, bundles and groups of muscles provides flexible structure to the musculoskeletal system. There has been increased interest in this connective tissue stretching as of late and may have some injury prevention benefits. This type of stretching is still in its infancy and there is not a lot of research here yet.
Myofascial stretching involves taking multiple joints to their end range of motion and holding for more than 1 minute. A good example of this stretch involves squatting down with the heels touching the ground while bending the upper body through the knees aiming to get the hands and possibly even forearms down to the ground. This stretches the large supportive thoracolumbar lumbar fascia, but care must be taken in this exercise due to the extreme range of motion involved.
Foam Rolling and Rolling Massagers
Anyone who has been injured has most likely been introduced to a foam roller by their physical therapist. They are a good investment, and should be in every athlete’s living room. The marketplace has expanded to provide various devices, which allow you to provide pressure and friction and thus work on soft tissues, preferably while lengthening a muscle. Examples include dense and soft foam rollers, massage sticks and lacrosse balls to name a few.
This type of bodywork has been shown to increase range of motion, localize blood flow and circulation, increase muscle flexibility, decrease muscle soreness and improve neuromuscular efficiency. These tools can also be used effectively for static and dynamic stretching, improving flexibility and to improve core strength as well as balance. These are essential tools to have in your home gym and can be effective if used correctly.
There are many types of massage including sport massage, structural integration, myofascial release; just to name a few. Finding a skilled therapist is essential to aid in your recovery efforts. Soft tissue massage has been shown to decrease inflammation, muscle soreness, cellular stress and increase circulation. It also has many injury prevention benefits, not to mention it can be quite relaxing and feels good!
Cold Water Immersion/Contrast Water Therapy
This recovery strategy involves plunging into an ice bath to submerge legs and part of your torso. Studies have shown that the optimal protocol for cold water immersion is to submerge for 6-12 minutes at an optimal temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Contrasting heat and cold for 5-7 cycles of 60 seconds has also been shown to assist with recovery (50 F cold plunge and 100+ F hot plunge.) Endurance trained athletes can particularly benefit from this water therapy after longer sessions. There is also a hydrostatic pressure effect due to the weight of the water that assists with improving venous circulation return.
There has been an explosion of compression items in the past years. Compression sleeves, socks, shirts, shorts, tights and pneumatic boots all theoretically improve venous return through a graded compression. These garments act as a pump for the lymphatic drainage system, which is a therapy that has been used in the medical field for many years.
Studies have shown that by using these recovery tools there is decreased muscle soreness, inflammation and they allow for a more stable alignment of the individual muscle fibers. Use of compression sleeves have not statistically been shown to improve performance while competing, even though some feel better while wearing them in races. The mental effect here might be enough to make wearing them while racing useful.
Gentle aerobic exercises that use different muscle groups could aid in recovery as well. Examples include walking, hiking, swimming, water jogging, mountain biking, stand up paddle boarding and yoga. Athletes should use this time to work on skills by performing drills to improve core strength, balance, proprioception and posture.
Muscle stimulation can be provided by small electrical impulses delivered to the muscles via pads on the skin. The nature of the electrical impulse is to cause a slight muscle contraction. No studies have shown that muscle stimulation assists with performance if used, but it feels like a massage from the inside out and may have similar benefits including circulatory and assisting in clearing metabolic wastes.
Sleeping and Napping
Stretching out with your feet up and resting is the ultimate recovery. The body repairs itself while sleeping so this strategy is really important. Athletes cannot continue to train at a high level without adequate rest.
I encourage everyone to start testing these methods to see which ones work the best for you. It depends on what equipment you have available to you, how much time you have and what makes you feel most rested and refreshed to go out there and train. New research is being done all of the time so be sure to keep yourself informed.
Tricia Davis, PT, is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Certified Coach, wellness and injury prevention specialist and co-owner of Potential Energy Training. She is a hyperkinetic, Canadian-trained physiotherapist and athlete. Good at seeing the big picture, she is able to focus on the most important details for you to achieve success. Tricia thrives most in helping those with limited time by providing evidence-based training and skill acquisition in order to make training the most efficient way to attain goals while reducing risk of injury. Tricia is passionate about health, wellness and efficiency in sport while maintaining a balance in all aspects of life. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.