When we talk about training, we tend to focus on performance and technique – how to get bigger, faster, stronger, better. Yet these goals cannot be reached without proper recovery.
Recovery, unlike popular opinion, doesn’t constitute post-session beers.
While nobody brags about how they “smashed their recovery this week”, perhaps they ought to: recovering properly from exercise allows your body to heal from intense training sessions, which is key to reaching new heights.
Recovery is one way elite athletes separate themselves from the rest of us – aside from remarkable genetics and gifted abilities. While the personal bests generate headlines, elite athletes know they can only keep pushing when they recover properly. The body has a great capacity to heal, and they need to fast-track that healing so they feel better and ready to go again quickly. They take it incredibly seriously, to the point of being obsessive.
While we need not be so obsessive, anybody wanting to improve their health, fitness and performance can benefit from thorough recovery. We can all fast-track the recovery process by following these seven rules.
1. Proper hydration: Many of us turn to beers, sugary soft drinks, or caffeine-packed energy drinks after training, which all reduce hydration.
It’s difficult to perform well or recover if you are dehydrated. We are 70 per cent fluid, so we need to put in what gets used. A simple way to know your hydration level before and after exercise is to notice the colour of your urine – a straw or clear colour signals you are fine. A darker yellow colour is a sign you are dehydrated.
Athletes are so concerned about their hydration levels that they weigh themselves before and after competing – any deficit is replenished quickly.
2. Ditch the energy drinks and only consume sports drinks with exercise: Simple rule – energy drinks are not going to help recovery. The high concentration of caffeine gives you a short-term boost but may dehydrate you, and does nothing to help your body recover. Excess consumption may also be dangerous for the heart.
Sports drinks provide better hydration because they contain sodium and magnesium that is lost in sweating, so are ideal during or straight after exercise. But only consume when exercising, not every day.
3. Never underestimate good sleep: Sleep is nature’s way of helping our body and mind recover. This time off is very important, yet many people underestimate its healing properties. There are signs our quality of sleep is deteriorating: The Sleep Health Foundation has found between 33 per cent and 45 per cent of Australians have poor sleep patterns.
Athletes know that sleep is so critical for their performance that many keep a sleep diary. For the rest of us, improvements in this one area can make a huge difference to our performance, not to mention our mood.
4. Compression garments: Exercise often creates fluid build-up in muscle tissue due to microtrauma. Compression garments help prevent this pooling by providing a mild amount of pressure to the muscles. Compression is particularly ideal for the legs since gravity will pool the fluid down to the ankles, creating a “dead end”, and compression helps prevent this. Sleeping in compression garments may help minimise swelling overnight.
5. Hydrotherapy: Hydrotherapy has been around since ancient Egyptian times, about 5000 years ago, and can be as simple as having a bath. Bathing in warm water relieves tired muscles, joints and ligaments. Buoyancy decreases the weight of the body and aids recovery through circulation.
Bathing in the sea is also therapeutic, and saltwater has many healing qualities.
6. Hot/cold contrast baths: You’ll never hear an athlete say they like hot and cold contrast baths – which may include ice baths – but they’ve been shown to be highly effective, and many athletes do this after exercise.
If you’re game you can replicate this in your shower – try 30 seconds’ warm water and 30 seconds’ cold and repeat four to six times. If you’re lucky enough to be near hot springs or mineral spas, then you can wade in the warm pool and then go into the plunge pool – alternating accordingly. The hot and cold helps our neural system and aids recovery.
7. Massage/physiotherapy: Hands-on treatment, including massage, is one of the fastest ways to recover. Elite athletes use massage on a regular basis. But for the rest of us, a massage weekly or fortnightly will make a positive impact if we are very active – for most of us, even a monthly massage will make a difference, but if you are training for a big event or trying hard to improve you may need more.
Physiotherapy is crucial to maintaining your body and performance, and addressing injuries or tightness. How to choose the correct therapist for you? Make sure you are seeing results within three sessions. It means they are on track. If not, get a second opinion.