As athletes we love to push the limits of our physical and psychological capacities. This pursuit involves long training days, pushing through fatigue, managing injuries, and long hours researching the best ways to achieve the goals that we set along the way. Although these endeavors are all a natural part of the journey, they are essentially all stressors on the body.
In order to advance our training, we need to place stress on the relevant systems we are looking to improve. So stress isn't always a bad thing, in fact it's crucial to success. It is however important that we identify how we can regulate and balance these stressors so that we are working in the right direction and not just exhausting our physical and physiological resources.
The market for recovery and regeneration in the world of training is booming, and there are countless methods, devices and supplements being labeled as the differences between success and failure for you as an athlete. You will not be surprised to know that these “miracle cures” more often than not carry quite a hefty price tag and that there always seems to be an endless choice of what is essentially the same product, leaving you with the big question, which product do I choose? This dilemma is made even more complex with the majority of literature regarding recovery strategies either being conflicting or poorly researched (if at all!). On paper, the process of recovery is highly complex and multifactorial, and is usually underpinned by factors such as nutrition, sleep, hydration, load management, management of life stressors, physical and physiological therapies, supplementation and everything in between. The good news for most athletes is that the practical application of a plan designed to assist with recovery doesn't have to be overly complicated, what it needs to be is optimal for the individual and their training and life circumstances. For this reason, here are five “recovery hacks” which I believe every athlete, no matter what level they are performing at, can use to positively impact their recovery from training. Now, when you read “hacks” I bet you thought I was going to provide you with some really top secret stuff... nope, I am in fact going to provide you with the fundamentals of recovery, the things that work, both in the research and when applied in the field. Happy Days! Here they are:
A solid foundation of nutrition can be the difference between a great training plan and one that is destined to crash and burn. Whether you are fueling for your workouts, eating for health and wellbeing or nailing your post workout recovery, understanding how to get the most out of your nutrition is important! When relating nutrition to recovery, I always like to focus on the four R’s. There are many variations of the four R’s, but my favourite to date was released by the USA Olympic Committee (1).
- REPLENISH: Intake carbohydrates post session to replenish muscle glycogen (~30-60g)
- REPAIR: Utilise high quality lean protein post workout to repair skeletal muscle damaged during your training session (~15-30g)
- REINFORCE: Support healthy immune function, muscle cells, and central nervous system function by consuming colourful and vibrant fruit and vegetables rich in antioxidants
- REHYDRATE: Intake water and electrolytes to replace those lost through sweat during your hard training sessions.
As athletes, we have all heard our coaches and peers tell us to get our 8 hours every night, funnily enough they are not wrong! Sleep really is the greatest recovery resource that we can tap into. A great blog post by the Sleep Foundation (2) listed various factors related to both great sleep and poor sleep in athletes. Sleep is essential for cardiovascular health, cell and tissue repair, and prevention from illness. Conversely, inadequate sleep can result in a host of problems including: reduced athletic performance, quicker times to exhaustion, decreased reaction times, difficulty learning skill and retaining information, increased risk of injury and increased risk of illness. So, how long do we need to sleep? In truth, it depends. Some literature states that 7 hours of sleep is ideal, however other research suggests longer (~10hrs) (2). I like to give myself a minimum and maximum dose, 7 hours minimum and 10 hours maximum, that's what seems to work for me. It is important to understand that the ideal sleep is not only dictated by duration, quality is also a vital part, see our recent blog post written by Coach Abbott on sleep for more information on how to get quality sleep for recovery.
Management of training load:
As human beings, our bodies are fantastic at adapting to stressors and do so on a daily basis. The whole process of improving during training requires our systems to adapt to the training stimulus we are experiencing. This process does however include an accumulation of fatigue as we progress through a training block. Our ability to manage this fatigue can be a primary factor in the magnitude and speed at which we get fitter, faster, and stronger. The Fitness Fatigue Model is a fantastic depiction of how this process works (3). One of the ways we achieve this balance as athletes is by managing the duration, intensity, and frequency of our training. This can be as complicated or as simple a process as it needs to be. For most of us, we need to listen to our body, push in the gym when we feel good and rest often or when we don’t feel good, that's an extreme oversimplification of managing training load but it is also the reality. Training hard is important, but can actually be a hindrance if we don't take the time to recover session to session. My top tip is to implement “Hot” and “Cold” days into your training. Hot days are where we go hard, lift big and set PR’s. Cold days are where we bring down the intensity, improve technique and give our body a chance to repair and reset. Learn where to programme these days and why, that's the challenge.
Listen to your body:
This one is a bit of a continuation of my last hack, it also takes us back to the “it’s all just stress on the body” statement that I made early in the post. I have worked with numerous athletes who will do anything to get to the gym, no matter what they will get their session in at the end of the day. Coming off the back of a full work day, poor nutrition, two hours sleep and five coffees to round it off. Although I always respect their commitment, they are setting themselves up for failure, or at least blunting their training outcomes. If you are piling life stress on top of training stress, you probably need to rethink your approach. How can you optimize your training week? There are times to train really hard, and there are times to prioritise rest and recovery. Your body will eventually let you know when it's time for the latter but maybe we can intervene before we reach burnout. My top tip, If you are feeling run down and tired, Identify which sessions are crucial and which can be substituted for rest and recovery. This doesn't necessarily mean sitting about doing nothing, rest and recovery can simply be a reduction in volume, intensity, or a variation in training.
The other stuff:
There are numerous “other” recovery strategies which are heavily used in practise but may not hold as much weight in terms of background research. Strategies such as massage therapy, foam rolling, hydrotherapy, compression garments, active stretching, and so on. These strategies all exist and are being used in top level sports as a way for coaches and athletes to gain that extra 1%. My top tip, pick what works for you. If you can find a strategy that makes you feel good then in my opinion, that strategy becomes a worthy recovery tool. It is important to remember though that the “other” recovery strategies should not be seen as a replacement or substitute for any of the fundamental strategies listed above.
Just to wrap things up, In my experience as an athlete and as a coach I have experimented with various techniques to get the most out of the recovery process. Like most things associated with human beings, there is substantial variation between individuals as to what works and what doesn't. One thing that is absolutely concrete, if you neglect the fundamentals (sleep, nutrition, hydration and management of training load and life stress), you will not be making the most of your training. You will in fact be negatively impacting your training and may even be opening yourself up to overtraining syndrome, underpinned by factors such as increased or decreased appetite, sleep disturbances, general fatigue, inability to concentrate, irritability, and loss of motivation (4). So, get your sleep, give your nutrition the time it deserves, train hard and smart, and take time for yourself! This blog is by no means an in depth look at the complex realm of recovery, it does however provide you with what I think you should focus on getting right in order to be a healthy, happy and effective athlete. If you want to find out a bit more about making the most of your recovery, contact your coach, local health professional or better yet, give us a message or come visit Elysium and chat with one of our members of staff.
1) 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.teamusa.org/nutrition> [Accessed 22 September 2021].
2) Walsh, N., Halson, S., Sargent, C., Roach, G., Nédélec, M., & Gupta, L. et al. (2020). Sleep and
the athlete: narrative review and 2021 expert consensus recommendations. British Journal Of
Sports Medicine, 55(7), 356-368. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2020-102025
3) What is the fitness-fatigue model?. (2021). Retrieved 22 September 2021, from
4) Kreher, J., & Schwartz, J. (2012). Overtraining Syndrome. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary
Approach, 4(2), 128-138. doi: 10.1177/1941738111434406