Sports recovery - back to basics?
The rate and quality of recovery for any athlete / sportsperson is key if they are to achieve high performance and become stronger or faster.
Historically, the focus tended to be purely on training harder. Today however, it is generally accepted that supporting the body’s recovery post exercise is as important as the workout / training. Christie Aschwanden, journalist, athlete and author of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery, supports this stating, “There’s no doubt that recovery is absolutely crucial.”
So, with sports people continually looking for whatever advantage or edge they can get, post exercise recovery will certainly give them some.
Sports recovery – what works best?
Increasingly, scientific studies are being conducted on the various recovery interventions and their impact on recovery, muscle injury, fatigue and performance. What we now know from many of these studies, is that recovery from training and competition is complex and encompasses many factors. These include the type of exercise completed as well as the outside stressors the sportsperson might be exposed to. As such, studies have concluded that sports recovery should focus on both physiological and psychological factors including:
Training and competition - type of training / sport, frequency, intensity, fatigue levels, previous recovery
Nutrition – nutrient, protein, carbohydrate intake and fluid and electrolyte balance
Psychological stress - from competing (prior and post)
Lifestyle - quality and amount of sleep, relationships – home, friends, team members etc., job / home / social situation
Health – immune system strength, injury, muscle soreness and damage
Environment - temperature, humidity and altitude
Whilst at present the number of studies investigating recovery strategies in sportspeople isn’t large, current evidence and anecdotal evidence from sportspeople supports the claim that completing appropriate recovery can help enhance performance.
Studies have investigated the benefit of several recovery interventions, some of the more common ones have been commented on below.
Stretching costs nothing, but how effective is it as a recovery aid? A 2016 research review found that stretching did not reduce post exercise muscle soreness or injuries in runners, although it could improve long-term flexibility. A 2011 Cochrane review, whereby Australian scientists analysed data from 12 studies, identified similar findings.
Research is mixed regarding the impact of compression garments on recovery. However, meta-analyses from 2013 and 2017 (combining the results of previous studies) found that compression garments had some beneficial effects, including reducing muscle soreness after exercise, and speeding muscle-function recovery.
In the 1970s, marathon runners were advised that drinking fluids would slow them down. New research then led to altered advice to drink as much as possible during demanding workouts. This contributed to the growth and popularity of (expensive) sports drinks containing e.g. electrolytes (salts) which we can easily get from food. In fact, many sports scientists argue that water intoxication (hyponatremia) is a bigger danger. Perhaps we should listen to the basic advice of Aschwanden who states, “Our bodies are equipped with this really good monitor of when we need to hydrate, it’s called thirst.”
Research carried out in the 1980s focused on consuming carbohydrates immediately after exercise to increase glycogen storage. Then a 2013 meta-analysis pointed to evidence supporting post-exercise protein consumption. Current thinking now suggests that it makes little difference whether you consume carbohydrates straight after exercise or at the next meal to refill your muscles’ energy stores in the form of glycogen. What we do know however, is that getting the right nutrients is key to recovery.
For some time now, sportspeople have been taking post-exercise body-cooling in cold baths and more recently cryotherapy. The thinking behind body-cooling is that it sends energy to muscles, reduces blood flow to extremities, reduces inflammation and speed of soft-tissue injury. Researchers remain unconvinced with Dr Joe Costello, a senior lecturer in exercise physiology at the University of Portsmouth stating (of cryotherapy), “The evidence is insufficient to support the use of whole-body cryotherapy as a means to prevent or treat muscle soreness after exercise.”
Many sports scientists think that any physiological effects of body-cooling techniques are down to Pavlovian “conditioning effect.” Even if this is the case, for some this may be enough.
Many processes take place during sleep that affect performance and support recovery. One of these is the release of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) which, amongst other things, supports the growth and repair of tissue, including muscle.
Getting enough quality sleep at the right times affects a person’s ability to function and feel well while awake – physically, mentally and emotionally. Aschwaden believes of this basic necessity, “The most powerful recovery tool known to science is sleep. It may sound boring, and few people get it right, but if athletes truly prioritise sleep, they can see amazing benefits.”
Relaxation and rest
Sports scientists are increasingly acknowledging that where worry or stress exists such as financial, work, relationships and so on, a sportsperson’s physical recovery can be affected. There are numerous ways to relax, and for any sportsperson it would be beneficial to build these into a daily routine / habit. Aschwanden believes that recovery at its most basic level is just rest stating that, “Relaxation is a vital part of the recovery process, and one that is too often ignored.” She goes on to say that anything that helps a sportsperson rest will support their recovery, despite the lack of scientific study showing that rest works. It’s difficult to measure rest objectively states Aschwaden - possibly the reason for the lack of study in this area.
Back to basics?
So, what does all this tell us?
For me, any sportsperson striving for high performance, can’t underestimate the basics of recovery – sleep, rest and relaxation. Through rest and relaxation, the body is better able to deal with the stresses placed on it.
Reflexology has been shown to be a powerful way to instil an immense sense of relaxation, promote rest, and deep sleep. Reflexology works with the whole body, supporting mental, physical and emotional balance and recovery, as well as providing a safe space to relax, receive care, and focus on oneself.
As one of my tri-athlete clients commented:
“With a pretty relentless training programme, it's important to have muscle treatments. Traditionally I would have sports massages but decided to try reflexology as an alternative and I was pleasantly surprised to experience the difference. Massages can be a little invasive in that there is soreness / perceived bruising after treatment. With reflexology it was calming and resulted in a better outcome with aches and pains having simply disappeared without the soreness. Works for me - thank you Sophie - great treatment and cracking set up in your cabin!”
Reflexology – supporting the basics of sports (and injury) recovery and performance
Reflexology is a touch therapy based on the theory that all systems and organs of the body are mirrored or reflected in our feet, hands, face and ears. Reflexologists work these points and areas to bring them back into balance, therefore aiding the body to recover and work as well as it can.
During high intensity exercise, our main systems: endocrine, muscular, circulatory, cardiovascular, respiratory, and lymphatic are involved. Reflexology can help to balance and relax all these systems by stimulating thousands of nerve endings in our feet and various ‘reflex points.’
These nerves and reflex points correspond to different glands, organs, muscles, joints, limbs and anatomical systems in our body. By using specific reflexology techniques on the foot and its ‘reflexes’, we are stimulating the body’s own natural healing abilities and addressing imbalances throughout the whole body.
Numerous benefits of reflexology have been reported by sports (and injured) people, including helping to:
Increase blood circulation to injured areas of the body thereby removing toxins and waste (generated by extended muscle exertion) and supplying oxygen and nutrients to those muscles. Increased circulation can help prevent cramps, spasms and aches and pains associated with exercise and speed up recovery periods.
Remove lactic acid from legs, which according the Monash University, Australia, reflexology can achieve four times faster than a standard massage.
Reduce inflammation by stimulating the adrenal gland to trigger a natural yet powerful anti-inflammatory response by encouraging the production of glucocorticoids including cortisol (hydrocortisone).
Enable deep relaxation and restful sleep therefore creating a positive effect on overall physical and emotional health and performance and faster recovery following intense exercise, injuries and surgeries.
Support the immune function by triggering a relaxation response to ensure that the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and ‘switches off’ our fight or flight mode / our sympathetic nervous system prior to, during or after training or competing thereby promoting good health.
Identify areas of stress before they manifest physically as pain or weakness therefore reducing the likelihood of potential injury.
Reduce pain such as leg, knee, hip, foot, shoulder, arm and hand pain. Treatments have been shown to address numerous sports injuries including, sprains and strains, shin splints, back pain (which can also be felt in the shoulders, neck, buttocks or lower limbs), spine injuries, joint inflammation (e.g. bursitis, tennis elbow, tendonitis), knee pain, shoulder pain (e.g. rotator cuff disorders, fractures), as well as conditions such as plantar fasciitis, neuroma and other types of pain.
Stimulate the function and reactivity of over 5000 nerve endings in the feet, which in turn can interrupt or change the way you feel pain and support injury recovery.
Dr Carol Samuel, a trained reflexologist, carried out a series of studies and experiments into the treatment of acute pain as part of her PhD studies at the University of Portsmouth. She established when reflexology was used as a method of pain relief, people felt 40% less pain and were able to stand pain for 45% longer. Her study concluded that reflexology could be used successfully with traditional pain relief and as a therapy it has much to offer athletes and sports people.
Professional sportspeople opting for reflexology to aid recovery
There are many examples of where reflexology has been used by professional sportspeople to support recovery from injury and intense exercise including International field and track athlete Steve Watson. In 2016, at the age of 22, Steve had his Olympic dreamed shattered after he injured his spinal discs during training. He also suffered severe muscle damage to the lower back – leaving him unable to bend and requiring assistance in order to move. After 18 months of working with a physician to repair the muscle and bone damage, Steve made little progress and still had limited mobility. In October 2014, Steve was introduced to reflexology expert Mr Parham Donyai. Within two weeks his pain was considerably less and within a month it was gone. Steve has since become a fitness model and inspirational body builder.
Many prominent PGA Tour Pros including Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus, John Daly, Fred Funk, David Duval, Fred Couples have also benefitted from reflexology. Fred Funk indicated in a testimonial that reflexology has helped him deal with ‘over-use injuries’ he has from playing golf.
In summary, it’s important for any sportsperson to experiment with different (and probably a combination) of recovery interventions in order to identify what best works for them. Whatever is chosen, importance should clearly be placed on the basics of post exercise rest, relaxation, sleep and nutrition in order to maximise recovery, reduce fatigue and enhance performance. Reflexology may be one intervention that works for you and perhaps the best way to find is to give it a go.
If you would like to find out more about reflexology, book a treatment / a free taster or just have a friendly person to talk to, please contact me on 07968984344, or email email@example.com.
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Reflexology ‘effective pain relief’, UK study suggests. (2013). [online]. Available at: https://www.nursingtimes.net/clinical-archive/pain-management/reflexology-effective-pain-relief-uk-study-suggests-10-04-2013/ (Accessed 19 April 2020).
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Reflexology may be as effective as painkillers for conditions such as back ache and arthritis. (2013) [online]. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2306227/Reflexology-effective-painkillers-conditions-ache-arthritis.html (Accessed 19 April 2020).
Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency [online] Available at:https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/sleep-deprivation-and-deficiency (Accessed 18 April 2020).
The secrets of sports recovery (2019). [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/apr/21/the-secrets-of-sports-recovery (Accessed 17 April 2020).
What really works when it comes to sports recovery? (2019). [online]. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2019/2/4/18206802/christie-aschwanden-good-to-go-sports-exercise-science-recovery-interview (Accessed 17 April 2020).