Creating An Unbreakable Athlete - Part 3 - Recovery

Creating An Unbreakable Athlete


This is part three of a three part series about building an ‘unbreakable athlete’.

The first two parts can be found here:

As always, this blog contains very general information and should be used in conjunction with a coach or health care professional.

This is not a comprehensive summary of all recovery methods, rather a more eclectic collection of strategies I’ve found very useful over the years.


How To Recover Like A Pro

In Part 2 we focused on building capacity through effective training habits.

While it’s important to get your training right, comparatively little importance is placed on how to best recover from those training sessions.

How well you recover quite often will make the difference between absorbing a training load the versus the beginnings of an over-use injury.

The longer I work with runners and athletes as a Physio, the more I can see how inadequate recovery techniques can lead to niggles and eventually injury.

When an injury does arise, we can sometimes become so fixated on the specific structure where we feel the pain (e.g. ITB, knee or achilles), but fail to zoom out and see the bigger picture of over-training / under-recovery that can be the root cause.

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Haile Gebrselassie on recovery,

“That’s why I keep winning. One of my advantages now is longtime experience. I know what I have to do to win the race, before the race, after the race, with recovery. That’s one of the advantages for old runners. That’s why I keep running well. The young runners have enough power just to do whatever they want. But if you think with strategy, you have a kind of advantage.”


Our bodies are designed to adapt to exercise by re-building after small and regular increases in stress / workload, that cause a minor break-down of tissue.

Keeping the balance between workout stress and rest / recovery ensures you will progress to be able to handle a higher level of performance and your physical capacity gets bigger (including muscle tissue, cardio-respiratory efficiency, tendon strength e.t.c).

Rest vs Active Recovery

There is a big difference between rest and active recovery, with rest being passive (doing nothing), whereas active recovery is a more targeted and mindful approach to re-building your tissues and creating the ideal environment for adaptations to take place.

Active recovery is where you have the opportunity to ‘press save’ on all the training you’ve done and help you progress to the next level.

As a young athlete, your recovery powers are at their peak, so you normally can back up pretty well with your training, without thinking about it.

But as you get older and your athletic goals possibly become greater (e.g. run a marathon), your recovery strategies become more important, requiring a deeper foundation to handle the loads of training (see picture below).

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What inadequate recovery looks like

Inadequate recovery (see graph below), means you may not be properly recovered for your next session, increasing the risk for an injury.

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Occasionally being under-prepared and over-trained is not an issue.

But if this pattern continues on for weeks / months then an injury will be almost guaranteed.

“The most important day in any running program is rest. Rest days give your muscles time to recover so you can run again. Your muscles build in strength as you rest” - Hal Higdon

Recovery is 24/7

You might train for an one hour per day, but there are 23 hours in the rest of the day that will make or break your next training session.

From what you eat, to how much sleep your getting to your general stress levels, your lifestyle plays a huge role in how well you can recover and adapt from your training loads.

Creating the right conditions for recovery

To be beneficial, recovery strategies need to accelerate recovery, as well as promote adaptations from training.

The three main areas of recovery we’ll focus on in the blog post will be:

  • Sleep

  • Nutrition

  • Tissue quality

Sleep:

There is a linear relationship between how much sleep you’re getting and your relative injury risk.

Neuroscientist Matthew Walker states, “sleep is the greatest legal performing enhancing drug that athletes aren’t using enough”.

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Training causes micro-trauma to the body, which stimulates positive adaptations to occur.

During sleep, your body release human growth hormone (HGH), a key protein that travels in the bloodstream to stimulate growth.

If you don’t get adequate sleep, you’re not getting your full allotment of HGH and your body will struggle to repair and adapt.

Cortisol tends to build up that can keep your body in a fight / flight state where healing and recovery is delayed.

Not sleeping enough has been reported to negatively effect performance, with higher rates of perceived exertion at the same level of effort.

What happens when you don’t get enough sleep ( < 6 hours per night):

  • time to physical exhausation drops by 30%

  • peak forces decrease

  • oxygen transport decreases

  • increases injury risk (80% chance of injury if sleeping < 5 hours per night)

Don’t stress if you’re not getting enough sleep

Don’t stress though about not getting enough sleep the night before a race, as the effect of poor sleep is normally worse two days after a bad night’s sleep.

While we all know getting more sleep would be ideal, in reality this can be much more challenging with work, family and social commitments putting pressure on our ability to get the ideal amount of sleep.

There’s no easy answer here and sometimes we can get so behind on sleep, that we’ve forgotten what is actually feels like to get a good nights rest.

Getting creative with your training schedule can help.

Here’s a few tips that may be of use:

  • rather than waking up extra early, do a training session as you commute to work or use your lunch break to train

  • break your training day into 2 smaller segments rather than one (very early) morning session

  • get to bed earlier - if you can get to bed by 10pm you will stimulate much greater training adaptations

  • avoid binge watching TV shows before bed

  • invest in a high quality mattress and pillow so you really look forward to getting into bed, and your sleep will be much better quality

If you have sleep issues that are more longer lasting, you may need to temporarily lower your expectations for your body, until you get things sorted.

Nutrition:

If you’re serious about your training, I’d suggest you consult a sports nutritionist to get some individual guidance on developing a plan that will help get the most out of your body.

Certainly one of the best investments I’ve made.


One of the most common mistakes you can make as an athlete is to not optimise your nutrition during an intense training cycle.

When your body doesn’t get enough nutritents to meet all of its tissue maintenance and energy needs, it will enter a catabolic state—which means your muscles begin breaking themselves down.

When you’re not eating enough, the first indication is likely to be a a niggle or injury and a significant decline in your workout performance.

The technical name for this is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) (see figure below)

Potential Performance Effects of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. Credit: I OC Consensus Statement 2018

Potential Performance Effects of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. Credit: IOC Consensus Statement 2018


Once again, as everyone has different needs, I highly recommend you consult with a Accredited Sports Dietician for a personalised plan.

But here’s a few key points about nutrition to get you started:

Hydration

Re-hydrating after workouts is critical to allow the body to start healing itself.

Water is good, but if you can also think about replacing electrolytes with something like nuun (we have in the clinic - ask us for a free sample).

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Carbohydrates

Numerous studies conducted over the past 40 to 50 years have consistently pointed to carbohydrate as the primary macronutrient for sustaining and improving physical performance.

Research suggests endurance athletes are able to perform better and train harder when they eat plenty of carbs.

Endurance athletes need a higher intake of carbohydrates (approximately 6 to 10 g/kg body weight daily), than the average person, not just to fuel their workouts, but to re-build glycogen stores which overall increases their physical capacity.

This equates to 1 - 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight as a recovery fuel, ideally within the first 30 minutes of completing a training session. The actual number depends on length and intensity of the workout.

Surprisingly, many athletes don’t eat enough carbohydrates to support their training optimally, thinking they will gain too much weight.

But if you’re not getting enough fuel in training, your body will be more likely to break down and injury will follow.

The importance of carbohydrates comes down to the fact we can’t store carbs effectively (the liver and muscles store glycogen), but that is not enough to fuel a marathon, or any event more than about 90 minutes.

Lack of carbs stresses and fatigues the muscles

Not getting enough carbs has been shown to affect the muscles and tendons - in particular the ITB, hamstrings and achilles tendons.

When you are depleted of carbohydrates, there is a proportional increase in muscle fatigue, and also an increase in muscle protein breakdown.

If you’ve suffered from injuries in the past - be sure to adequately fuel yourself before, during and after your workouts to prevent your body from breaking itself down.

A low-carb diet may well be popular and useful for an inactive office worker, but a competitive endurance athlete may well need 2-3 times carbohydrate as the average person.

If you can focus on healthy, nutrient dense carbohydrates, and generally avoid processed carbohydrates you will enjoy getting fitter faster, with minimal time off due to injury.

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Protein

Re-building soft tissues after a hard workout requires additional protein, compared with a sedentary person.

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Protein plays a critical role in repairing this damage and is comprised of building-blocks known as amino acids.

There are 22 amino acids and our bodies require a balance of all of them, yet there are nine that we cannot produce ourselves (essential amino acids) which must acquire from food.

Complete proteins are sources which contain all 22 amino acids. Some readily available sources of complete proteins that will be helpful in building your way out of fatigue are animal products such as fish, eggs, red meat and chicken. Plant based athletes may need to supplement their diet to ensure optimal protein synthesis.

The timing of the protein is also critical, with research showing that evenly spreading your protein over 3 or 4 meals during the day creates the best environment for recovery and re-building.

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It can be difficult to optimally consume good protein sources (especially if you’re on the go), here’s a few examples you could take to work:

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Vegetarian / Plant Based Athletes

A vegetarian or plant based approach can raise several potential risks to both your health and your performance, but it can be done. Here are some excellent tips for you to help you stay healthy.

Fueling your body before training / racing

A good general rule is to avoid eating a main meal within the 2-4 hours before exercise (although everyone is different).

High fibre, fat and protein meals consumed pre-exercise have been shown to cause an increase in GIT symptoms as fibre, fat and protein are slow to empty from the stomach.

During your training try out different fueling options to find out what works best for you.

Try not to drink too much right before you train as you don’t want to have to run to the toilet just as you’re getting into a session.

Chocolate Milk

A study led by Joel Stager showed that drinking chocolate milk after running or any intense exercise speeds up recovery process and delays exhaustion time during training better than any sports drink.  

Maintaining tissue quality:

The major benefit of soft tissue work is that it relaxes tense muscles and removes adhesions or minor scar tissue between muscles and fascia, a fancy word for the sheath or casing that surrounds your muscles.

Training causes increased tension in the tissues and adhesions can restrict movement and impair your range of motion, potentially leading to abnormal movement patterns that can cause overuse injuries.

Types of soft tissue work:

  • foam rolling

How often do you need soft-tissue work done?

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As you build your physical capacity and get your training intensity ratios right, you will probably find your tissues are less likely to get over-loaded and tight.

Nervous system:

Too much high intensity or threshold training can have a detrimental effect on your nervous system.

Exposing yourself daily to high physical loads and stress keeps your body in the sympathetic state - high adrenaline and cortisol that keep the body in a state of tension.

Incorporate breath work, yoga, pilates and other calming practices to keep your stress levels at bay and promote effective recovery.

Ice baths

Coaches and athletes have been using ice baths successfully for years.

Use ice baths when you’re really going through a tough phase in training with lots of hot spots and you need to recover quickly for another session.

If you experience more general muscle soreness, I would advise warm baths as your typical way to un-wind at the end of a hard day’s training. They improve blood flow, stimulate the body’s healing response (para-sympathetic response) and a great before bed to encourage a good night’s sleep.


Key Messages:

  • Active Recovery helps protect against injury as it stimulates the body to repair and recover by optimising the right environment

  • Make active recovery a priority to balance the stress of training

  • Consider sleep, good nutrition and maintaining tissue quality the foundation for your success