Recovery Principles

Recovery Principles Overview
Paul Goods (B.Sc Hons, PhD)


Sleep is the most important recovery modality by an extremely long margin. There is no substitute for sleep, and all remaining recovery strategies that will be discussed here pale in significance when compared to a good night’s sleep! The reason that sleep is so important is because this is when our bodies adapt. We are constantly stressing our bodies with exercise, and they cannot recover or adapt during the other stresses of everyday life. An athlete should be aiming to get a MINIMUM of 8 hours of sleep, every single night. When a particularly hard training day has been performed, this should be topped up with another hour of sleep either in addition to normal sleep, or in the form of a nap (both are equally suitable).


After sleep, the next most important form of recovery is replenishing lost fluids and macronutrients after exercise. This is because our bodies cannot recover optimally if they are also fighting the additional stresses of dehydration or macronutrient deficiency. In terms of fluid loss, most of us will drink water and/or sports drink intermittently throughout a training session; a good guide to work out whether you have done this sufficiently is to weigh yourself before and after exercise. Any lost weight is lost fluid, and this needs to be replaced within 30 min post-exercise. This means that 1 kg of lost body mass needs to be topped up with 1-1.5 L of water and/or sports drink. Secondly, in terms of macronutrients, we very, very rarely as humans are able to deplete ourselves of fat. Therefore carbohydrates and protein are the keys to recovery for food consumption. In a damage inducing training session, protein is the key to rebuilding those muscle fibres which now have miniscule tears in them from over-exertion; 15-25 g of protein within 30 min of finishing your session is perfect here. As for carbohydrates, you should be looking to consume between 50 – 200 g of carbohydrates within 30 min of finishing your training session to replete your body’s stores of muscle glycogen (fuel for high intensity exercise). Consult the table below for a guideline on carbohydrate consumption. These carbs can be low or high GI, as your body will redirect them as needed when there is a shortage in the body.


Any form of water immersion is good following exercise. This is because it applies hydrostatic pressure to our bodies, basically acting as a giant compression bandage! This pressure acts by compressing our veins and therefore increases venous return to the heart which means blood is going to and from our muscles at an accelerated rate. This increased blood flow helps to clear out muscle damage markers which are carried by the blood, away from our muscles, and broken down and dispersed. The reason that ice also helps is because it reduces post-session inflammation (either in our joints or within our muscles) which helps with preventing soreness and improving the quality of our next training session. Ten -15 minutes at 10 – 15 degrees is the rule of thumb for an ice bath, and this can be achieved by adding 2 or 3 bags of ice to a cold bath. It is not recommended to bathe below 10 degrees, as extreme conditions such as this can actually be of more detriment than benefit. Finally, any water immersion is better than none if ice is unavailable. However, if the water is not as cold, try to stay in for 20 min.


Stretching and massage are an important component of recovery to increase range of motion and prevent stiffness/tightness and soreness after a training session. Static stretching should be performed regularly, slowly and in a pain free manner to give us a larger functional range of movement and also to prevent tight muscles which can be uncomfortable and prevent quality training sessions in the future. This is done by separating our muscles’ cross bridges to allow muscles to work throughout their full range. Massage is the ying to stretching’s yang, as it helps to release myofascial tightness. This means that the sheaths of tissue surrounding our muscles are released, because it is no good having flexible muscles if their movement is limited by the surrounding tissue. This is why both these strategies have been discussed together; one is a lot more effective when performed in conjunction with the other. Additionally, athletes frequently rate a massage as the most effective recovery strategy at making them feel better, and being comfortable in your body during and after training cannot be understated!


When getting water immersion after a training session is impractical, this can be substituted for wearing compression garments. While these tend to lose tightness over their lifetime, making them less effective than the constant pressure of water immersion, it is certainly better than not performing any recovery at all. The increased blood flow to muscles from an improved venous return allows muscle damage markers to be cleared from the muscle and improves our recovery. Compression garments should be worn for 1-2 hours after training, and this can also be done after water immersion to ‘top-up’ our compression recovery which was performed in the water.


As seen in the pie chart below, there is no substitute for sleep in recovery. Even if you do everything else perfect, this is still less effective than a good night’s sleep and this should be every athlete’s aim when looking to improve their performance through elite recovery. After this, simply eating and drinking right after training to replace lost fluids and carbohydrates, as well as consuming protein to repair damaged muscles, will go a long way towards ensuring elite recovery. Remember, these fluids and food need to be consumed within 30 min of finishing your session, otherwise that ship has sailed! Once you have got your sleep and consumption habits sorted, you can then start to introduce additional recovery modalities to take yourself to the next level. While evidence for each of these supplementary procedures exists, the benefits are generally smaller, which is why it is important to master the big picture procedures first. Then, by performing all the supplementary methods together (taking an ice bath after difficult sessions, stretching daily, getting a weekly massage, wearing compression garments often) you give yourself the best chance of an optimal.