Gone are the days of rest being the only form of recovery after a hard exercise session or competition. Modern recovery strategies include more active methods such as massage and stretching, but how effective are these really? Here is what the evidence says about recovery for athletes.
Recovery for Athletes: What the Research Says
- Ice / Cryotherapy – Claims to reduce muscle soreness and aid in speeding up recovery, but this is not backed up by science. Cold exposure impairs inflammation and muscle adaptations, which could delay recovery as inflammation is an integral part of the body’s recovery process.
- Pain killers / Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatories (NSAIDs) – Similarly to cryotherapy, using these drugs can be detrimental to the healing process, as they reduce inflammation and can slow healing. However, they still play a role in managing pain. Always consult your doctor before taking any new medication.
- Massage / Foam Rolling – These methods are generally enjoyable for most athletes, but what does the evidence show? There are often claims that these methods “flush” lactic acid, but this by-product of exercise is naturally cleared from the muscles. There is not a lot of evidence for physiological benefits of these methods. That said, massage is a good way for athletes to relax and develop body awareness.
- Stretching – Stretching has been popular for a long time, and is highly ritualised. The evidence from randomised studies suggests that muscle stretching, whether done before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed‐onset muscle soreness in healthy adults. However, it may play a part in injury prevention.
- Compression – Compression garments (such as socks or stockings) are claimed to increase blood flow, and they do to a certain extent. However, there is a very high level of variability, as different products offer different amounts of compression. There is not a lot of physiological evidence that compression garments aid in recovery. Most athletes already have good blood flow, and the best way to assist in blood flow (venous return back to the heart) after exercise is to do a good warm down.
So why are these recovery methods so popular if there is very little evidence to support their effectiveness?
It is likely due to the Placebo Effect – expectations can exert a strong influence on perceived outcomes. If you believe that something is going to make you feel better, then you are likely to experience that it has a beneficial outcome.
What is the most effective method of recovery for athletes?
Sleep is an extremely powerful tool for recovery. It is cheap and accessible to everyone, although it is something that athletes routinely neglect. Sleep is just as important as your training program, and needs to be made a priority by athletes.
Some simple “sleep hygiene” strategies include:
- Establishing a consistent sleep-wake routine
- Keeping your sleep space dark and cool
- Taking naps to get in extra sleep during a high-load exercise period
How to Measure Recovery
There are many ways to track recovery, some examples being tracking heart rate recovery after exercise and heart rate variability.
But one of the best indicators for recovery is mood. A questionnaire that can be used as a good qualitative measure to track recovery and help avoid overtraining is The Profile of Mood States (POMS) Questionnaire.
- BMJ Talk Medicine: Exploring the strange science of recovery with Christie Aschwanden.
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise, 2011
- Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine: The impact of sleep duration on performance among competitive athletes: A Systematic Literature Review, 2018