Optimizing athlete recovery and sleep

When it comes to training, competing, and life all exert a significant amount of load on the athlete, through a variety of different mediums, including the physiological and psychological. In this article of the performance health series, I’ll explore what we can do to support our recovery from load.

Recovery, then, is important. But because it often happens away from the track, it can become neglected. The quicker we can return to baseline—or at least an adaptive state—the sooner we can subject our athletes to a further adaptive load, or the lower our chances of injury and/or illness will be to any subsequent load. In this article I’ll primarily focus on the recovery processes that occur between days of training; i.e., after I’ve completed my training today, what athletes can do to ensure optimally performance in subsequent sessions.

» Learn more: This article is part of Craig Pickering’s Performance Health Series. Part 1 discussed the concept of performance health, part 2 reviewed leading injury models, part 3 explains load and load measurement, part 4 looked at immune function and support, part 5 looked at nutrition and energy intake, and part 6 explores psychosocial factors.

Nutritional support

It likely comes as no surprise that adequate nutrition is an important pillar in the post-exercise recovery period of athletes, and the size of this pillar grows in importance with the frequency of training sessions, and the relative intensities and loads the athlete achieves in those sessions—basically, an elite athlete training twelve times per week needs to pay much more attention to post-exercise nutrition than the beginner training three times per week.

The goals of post-exercise nutrition are to replenish the energy stores used during exercise, and to support the repair of damage that occurred within the session. In a 2010 review on the topic, leading researchers in this field recommended the co-ingestion of carbohydrate and protein soon after the training session finishes. During high-intensity exercise, stored carbohydrate (in the form of muscle glycogen) is the primary energy source, and so we need to replenish what is used. There are generally two phases of this; the fast phase, which occurs within 60 minutes of exercise, and the slow phase, which takes place across the course of the day, and underpins the requirements for good nutritional practices at all times. During the fast phase, a carbohydrate intake of around 1g per kilogram body mass appears to be appropriate, along with around 20g of protein. As protein muscle synthesis is cyclical, it might make sense to consume around 20g of protein 4-5 times across the day as a way of optimizing recovery and adaptation.

Other nutrients, such as omega-3, creatine, and vitamin D, also appear to support recovery, as does ensuring a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is consumed.

Cold water immersion

A common and popular method of enhancing recovery is that of cold water immersion (CWI – commonly termed ice baths), and its close cousin, contrast therapy (alternating periods of hot and cold water immersion). Both appear to be effective in enhancing recovery, according to a 2013 review article on the topic, but there are some practical considerations to keep in mind, primarily that CWI following training may negatively affect the adaptive response to training (but it also might not), something I wrote about in 2015.

Looking at the research, it’s important to consider the time and the place of ice bath use. During periods where we’re trying to chase adaptations, it might be best to limit their use, but during the competition period, where adaptations are secondary in importance to performance recovery, we might want to use them a bit more liberally.

Sleep

I’ve written about sleep a couple of times before, both for HMMRMedia and elsewhere, including a review of the popular book Why We Sleep by Harvard sleep expert Matthew Walker. Now, in 2020, you’re probably very aware of the implications of sleep on performance, but as a quick summary:

Bringing in some aspects from previous articles, and further demonstrating the inter-relatedness of aspects of illness and injury, poor sleep quality and short sleep durations have been associated with decreased immunity and increased anxiety—both risk factors for illness and injury. High level athletes are potentially at an increased risk of sleep disturbances for a variety of reasons, including stress associated with competitions, evening competitions, travel and jet lag, and pain and discomfort caused by heavy training.

When it comes to optimizing sleep, and hence the recovery and performance of athletes, there are a couple of things we can do. Firstly, we should educate athletes about the importance of sleep, not just to their performance, but also their general health and wellbeing. Secondly, key sleep hygiene habits should be re-enforced. These include avoiding caffeine, alcohol, or stimulating activities before bed, including the minimization of blue light exposure, and having a regular pre-bed routine and regular sleep and wake times. Athletes may also wish to utilize relaxation techniques prior to bed in order to reduce any anxiety that might be negatively affecting their ability to sleep. There are also a couple of dietary interventions that may positively influence sleep quality and duration in athletes, and this article, from the Strength and Conditioning Journal, handily summarizes many of the salient points for athletes when it comes to optimizing sleep.

Recovery Monitoring

The monitoring of athlete recovery can be pretty straightforward, and can even be integrated into any readiness to train tests you might utilize. For example, if you have a baseline measure of a pre-training test (e.g. peak CMJ height or power), then you can simply compare the score the athlete achieves prior to a given training session in this test to their baseline, to give you an idea of how well recovered they are; you could also collect RPEs during training and see if they are gradually increasing across a training block.

If you’re collecting subjective measures, which, as we saw in a previous article, are a valid way of quantifying training stress, this could be as simple as a conversation with your athletes, or, if you want validated methods, through a questionnaire such as Profile of Mood States (POMS) or the Recovery-Stress Questionnaire for Athletes (RESTQ-Sport).

In addition, when it comes to the monitoring of sleep, it may well be enough just to ask how long the athletes slept for, when they went to sleep, and how well they slept. A general concern I have with sleep trackers is that people often view their results in isolation, and become anxious if their tracker tells them they didn’t sleep well or for long enough.

Summary

When it comes to optimizing performance, athletes spend more time away from training than they do at training, so taking steps to optimize this time is crucial. Inadequate recovery between sessions increases the risk of illness, injury, and underperformance, all things we want to avoid when it comes to trying to get our athletes to perform at their best.

Recovery techniques such as cold water immersion may speed up recovery slightly, but the big rocks of sleep and nutrition likely play the biggest roles – getting these right is crucial. In addition, ensuring training loads are at a level the athlete can tolerate and respond to is hugely important in ensuring the athlete is adequately recovered in order to stay healthy and perform at their best, showing the inter-relatedness between training, recovery, and performance – something that we all need to get right!