Recovery: The Key to Your Next Great Performance

By Jim Ronai MS, PT, ATC, CSCS, USA Baseball Medical Safety Advisory Committee

The fields of athletic coaching and sports performance are quickly expanding. Coaches and athletes are continuously developing new methods of improving performance based on current advances in the fields of exercise science and human performance. While many coaches focus on improving execution of the technical aspects of sports skills, sports performance professionals have emphasized improving the athletic skill sets of performers based on the physiologic and metabolic demands of athletic competition. Not to be overlooked in the process of training and preparing athletes is recovery. Recovery takes place during and following practices, training sessions and competitions and may be the key to an athlete’s next great performance.

While the act of practicing and training for sport helps to refine the neuromuscular efficiency of an athlete, the high-energy demands on working muscle and subsequent damage can leave an athlete depleted and under prepared for their next practice or competition. The combination results in less than optimal results while leaving the athlete potentially vulnerable to injury.

The key to mastering the recovery process is understanding the effects of exercise on the body at the cellular level. The benefits of exercise and physical activity are well documented and well publicized, but the fact that strenuous physical activity results in local inflammatory responses by working skeletal muscle often gets overshadowed. Muscular contractions during exercise result in biochemical and mechanical changes and produces damage at the cellular level. The results are muscle soreness of varying degrees, loss of range of motion/stiffness, local swelling and an overall decrease in an athlete’s ability to efficiently perform sport related skills at optimal levels. In some cases, the effects of muscular soreness result in altered movement patterns, thus creating potential errors in technique and execution. In other words, attempting to practice and play when an athlete is in a less than a fully recovered state may result in the development of bad performance habits and potential compensation related injuries.

Several practical methods for effective recovery are available to athletes of all levels. In general terms, they include: dynamic and static stretching, various massage and soft-tissue release techniques, thermal agents, hydration and nutrition.

Efficient circulation of nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood is the goal of post-exercise recovery. By replenishing muscle tissue with blood that is rich in oxygen and nutrients, the muscle is better equipped to heal and “reload” in order to perform again in less time. Obviously, an individual’s ability to recover more completely in less time is a good indication of that individual’s overall fitness level. Efficiency of recovery also significantly impacts the quality of performance.

Much has been written about the values of both static and dynamic stretching. In general, dynamic stretching has been lauded for its neuromuscular preparatory effects. Dynamic stretching activates the excitatory reflexes found in muscles and tendons and activates the nervous system to a more “game-ready” or alert state.

Static stretching has been characterized as more of a relaxing form of stretching better used to allow muscles and tendons to lengthen and relax. When performed for a period of 18-25 seconds, static stretching acts to inhibit the stretch reflexes that excite the nervous system and produce ballistic movements. Static stretching is typically used in early stages of rehabilitation involving joint and soft tissue injury and is widely used during the “cool down” phase of workouts prescribed by many strength and conditioning professionals.

Soft-tissue massage and various forms of release therapy serve to mechanically assist the body’s circulatory system to essentially exchange old for new. By physically flushing poorly oxygenated blood and chemical byproducts of muscular contractions away from fatigued tissues, the body can actively replenish those tissues with nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood that assists healing and recovery. Mechanical forms of release also aide in altering the actual length and tension of soft tissues, thereby making them more supple and easier to stretch. Many sports medicine and strength and conditioning professionals are teaching their athletes and patients to use items like massage sticks and high-density foam rollers to self-manage soft tissue restrictions and to aid in the recovery process. These items and others related items are readily available in most sporting-goods stores and online sports-performance equipment retailers.

Use of thermal agents like heat, ice and contrast bathes also serve to manipulate the body’s circulatory system by increasing or decreasing blood flow to targeted tissues. Raising tissue temperature and creating dilation of blood vessels allows an increase in blood flow to an area that needs to be mobilized or replenished. By contrast, the introduction of ice causes a narrowing or vasoconstriction, thereby limiting the flow of blood, interstitial and lymphatic fluids to soft tissue. Alternating these thermal agents at a ratio of 1 to 3 augments the body’s ability to exchange oxygen-depleted blood containing the biochemical byproducts of energy production and muscular contraction with nutrient-rich blood that helps fatigued muscle recover. This process helps to decrease the presence of delayed onset and post-exercise muscular soreness, restrictions in range of motion and feelings of fatigue.

Nutritional considerations including proper post-exercise eating and hydration are topics that deserve significant attention. Establishing pre-practice/game weight is a key to making sure athletes are properly hydrated following activities. It is well documented that weight-loss experience during practice and competition is largely attributed to fluid loss. The general rule of thumb for coaches, parents and athletes regarding proper recovery hydration is that athletes should drink 16 ounces of fluid for every pound lost during games and practices/workouts. The dangerous effects of dehydration can be easily avoided by establishing a hydration schedule. The schedule should include ample pre-activity hydration as well as appropriate hydration during activity (4 ounces of water or a carbohydrate supplemented beverage every 15 minutes). Charting or documenting pre-event weight and post-event weight is an easy way for athletes to stay ahead of dehydration.

Post-exercise diet is also a very important aspect of recovery for an athlete. Depleted tissues require nutrients in order to effectively repair and replenish their energy stores for the next performance or practice/workout. Consuming a proper balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats acts to provide the body with the essential nutrients needed to replenish depleted muscle with glycogen. Nutrient timing is also very important in terms of taking advantage of the body’s receptivity to nutrients. Establishing a nutritional consumption schedule that includes meals and nutrients early in the day, pre-practice/competition, during activity and post activity, help the body to maintain adequate energy storage. The post-activity recovery meal should consist of carbohydrates and proteins in a ratio of 3-4:1 within 30 minutes of activity being completed. The actual amounts of carbohydrate and protein ingested are a function of body weight. In order to maximize the body’s ability to utilize nutrients, 1.0 to 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight and .3 to .4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight are general recommendations for consumption within 30 minutes of practice or competition. An example of a very easy recovery meal is 2 tablespoons of peanut butter on 2 slices of white bread or 8 ounces of 1% chocolate milk.

While the field of sports performance and sports science continue to expand, the professionals who drive these fields continue to find methods to aid an athlete’s body in performing at higher levels of efficiency. Proper recovery techniques as described in this article are being used with success to set athletes up for their next great performance.

Jim Ronai is a physical therapist, certified athletic trainer and certified strength and conditioning specialist. He is the Director of Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine at Rehabilitation Associates, Inc., in Milford, Conn., the founder of Jim Ronai’s Competitive Edge, LLC, speed, agility and strength program and a member of the USA Baseball Medical and Safety Advisory Committee.