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Recovery touches more aspects of your performance and development than you think.
I feel like most advice around recovery is only scratching the surface of why it’s important. If I had to guess, you’ve heard all the common recommendations (get more sleep, eat healthy, stretch, do cold baths, etc.), but how confident would you be in explaining how each of these things play into your overall performance? Here’s the thing, most of these things aren’t fun, you probably don’t enjoy doing them, so having an understanding as to the “why” behind them can help you make intelligent choices for yourself.
There’s two main components here. Enhancing recovery helps you be as fresh as possible so you can perform at your best on game day. But it also helps you bounce back from practices, games, and workouts faster, get more repetitions and more training volume without overtraining.
The basic process of any type of training is as follows: You place stress on the body, your performance goes down, then you begin to adapt to the stress and your performance climbs to a point higher than it was before it was stressed.
If the training dose or frequency is too high, recovery will not occur in time and you could end up in a continual cycle of adding new stress where the previous stress hasn’t been recovered from yet, driving you towards over-training.
Side note: This doesn’t mean we’re only training when we feel “recovered” or adding unnecessary fragility to the way we view out training, it’s about finding the balance of a week’s worth of stressors that is high enough to push you into progress, while not wrecking you.
You may be starting to see where recovery plays a role here. Simply put, if you’re able to recover faster using proven methods, you afford to increase the dose and/or the frequency of training and therefore make faster progress.
Let’s use an example. You have a teammate who is identical to you in skill level and athleticism, and the two of you do all your skill sessions and strength training together. He does everything right from a recovery perspective, and you have a routine that’s very average (side note: be sure to tune in until the end as I will be covering what I believe “doing everything right” looks like). Since all your training is the same, you will have a harder time with whatever dose you train at. While he would feel fresher and perform at a higher level than you due to the lower fatigue, if you were training at a rate appropriate to what you can handle, he could suffer from under-training over time. If he then went and started training separately, working 5-10% longer or more intense than you used to together, he would quickly surpass you due to the increased training volume. For you to try to match his workload could be counter-productive due to your reduced ability to recover from that stress.
It’s easy to see that these simple steps that most overlook can be the secret weapon to accelerating your development.
Considering the same mechanism, this is also why prioritizing recovery helps you be fresh and perform at your best on game days.
Now, let’s discuss how to win at recovery.
In my opinion, the most commonly used tools are the most over-rated. While things like massage guns and foam rolling definitely aren’t “bad”, they are also on the lower tier of effective recovery methods as they largely contribute to feeling better without changing much about your recovery status. I broke down the mechanism behind of foam rolling in a recent instagram post, so check that out if you want to learn more. Again, not bad, just not highly beneficial.
Then you have another group of tools that directly benefits the recovery process, but come with diminishing returns or special restrictions.
For example, using any form of cold exposure (ice pack, ice bath, cryotherapy, etc.) accelerates the recovery process but at the cost of progress. See, the inflammation that comes from training is actually part of the process of your body enhancing itself. You can cut down inflammation with ice to recover faster, but you’re slightly decreasing the benefits you will get from the training session. Therefore, things like ice and any anti-inflammatory supplements are great in-season when the priority is to be fresh for games, but should probably be limited in the off-season and pre-season when the priority is adaptation.
Cold exposure, along with things like foam rolling, also become less effective the more that you use them. If you’ve never used an ice bath before it is going to deliver a potent response, but if it’s a daily routine you will become accustomed to it and it will be less effective on the days that you need it most (say, when you’re feeling sore the day before a championship game). So we want to have some consideration towards when we use them within in a week and within a year. As in, will you use it every day or just the days before and after games? Will you use it the same year-round, or will you use different recovery tools in the off-season? You can also simply increase the dose to keep it effective, but you can’t do this forever either. You may plan to make your ice baths longer as the season goes on, and then remove them entirely in off-season.
Finally, there’s a group of tools that provide real benefit and are difficult or impossible to over-use.
Very low intensity active recovery can be a powerful tool. Long walks or cycling, even for 30-60min or beyond, can do wonders for recovery. I’ve seen CNS fatigue measurements drastically improve immediately after a 30 minute bike. You would aim to stay in heart rate zones 1 or 2 though, as you don’t want to add a whole new training stress.
Breathing exercises or mindfulness exercises are also very underrated. When you train, your sympathetic flight or flight nervous system dominates and allows you to perform at a high level, but this system down-regulates your recovery abilities. Often times, athletes remain in an elevated state long after a workout or a game, which means recovery will be impacted negatively. The faster you can calm your mind and body, the faster you can recover. You will find that even the simplest of breathing exercises, like breathing in for a count of 4, and breathing out for a count of 6, can drastically change how relaxed you feel. This also goes for life stress - if you’re stressed out through most of the day, you can also hinder recovery (though don’t start stressing about your stress!). Having tools that help you relax is powerful.
And finally, the ones everyone is sick of hearing about: Sleep and nutrition. You hear about them often because they are the most important. Your biggest cheat code is to get as much sleep as possible, eat the highest quality foods as possible, and maximize protein and vegetables. Just because you may not be able to sleep 8 hours a night doesn’t mean it’s not worth making an effort to go from 6 to 6 and a half hours. Any progress is beneficial.
So there’s recovery for you. Use these tools to train longer and harder, to ultimately become a better athlete and put yourself closer to achieving your goals. And if you’re a coach, imagine how these factors influence the success of the team as a whole when multiplied across each player. So let’s all commit to not neglecting recovery in 2023!