Active recovery for athletes

The best way to recover between your training, amongst other things, is to remain active... but how much so depends on what level of activity you are regularly exposed to.

Yesterday evening, my choice of active-recovery was a game of golf. We got 8 holes in before dark. I totalled just under 9,000 steps even though it was a short game. For me, that's not a lot... I'm used to climbing summits in snowdonia 2-3 times per week when not in the gym, and I do so carrying much more weight than a set of golf clubs. In addition, I regularly achieve near 10,000 steps on a daily basis when coaching at the gym. Furthermore, I am not a competitive athlete, and therefore the only consequence of me not recovering correctly is that I feel fatigued and no doubt experience a shitty gym session from time to time. For an athlete, this topic should not be overlooked.

Golf is typically a favourite pass-time for for athletes. An opportunity to switch off, relax and enjoy a sport less intense as the one they compete in themselves, but imagine how a full game of golf could hinder an athlete's ability to recover if they weren't used to that volume of activity outside of their regular training sessions? Based on my own findings yesterday, one full game of golf could entail over 20,000 steps, all whilst carrying 10-15kg. Not to mention the frequent explosive action when on the tee or fairway.

Now I'm not for one minute suggesting that walking round a golf course with 15kg on their back is arduous and hard work for an athlete. Far from it. But here lies the issue. Just because one may be tolerant to such activity does not mean that its a good choice for active recovery.

During important stages of competition and/or training, recovery choice is an extremely important factor. Non-intentional overreaching or under-recovery could be the difference between winning and losing. It could be the difference between being selected for the team or not. It could be the difference between having the opportunity to train or getting injured or even ill.

If a semi professional or recreational athlete has an extremely active job outside of the sport they train and compete in, then the odd round of golf will not significantly impact their ability to recover should their calorie intake be sufficient.

On the other hand, if an athlete tends to spend their down time sat at home watching their favourite TV series, then even a day walking round the shops with the family may be destructive to their performance.

You can be prescribed with the best programme in the world, but if you fail to recover from it then you will fail to enhance performance.

If you are in your off-season and are adapting well to any pre-season training that you are exposed to, great! Grab your set of clubs, plan walks and days out with the family. Now is a time when you can afford to be sore. The consequences of being so are insignificant.

On the other hand, if you're weeks away from competition, you're coach has increased training volume and/or intensity, or perhaps you're not progressing quite as much as you ought to be, then look closely at your methods of recovery and your activity levels outside of the gym.

Below is a list of methods that you should be using frequently, if not daily to help make the most out of your programme:

1. Ensure your calorie intake is not below that of your expenditure, unless you are required to diet in order to make weight for a competition (that's a post for another day!)

​2. Choose physical activity that is not going to impact or stress your nervous system. For example, visit your local swimming pool and perform breast stroke at a gentle pace or hop on an exercise bike for 20 minutes rather than a 5 mile jog.

3. Supplement with vitamins and minerals that support recovery, good immune health and efficient hormone production. Examples include omega 3, vitamin d3, zinc, selenium, vitamin c and magnesium.

4. In addition to the low intensity short duration aerobic exercise detailed above, choose a simple and low intensity exercise routine that involves movements with large ranges of movement. This may be anything from yoga, foam rolling and stretching, to performing your current training programme but without any additional weight on the bar (great for weightlifters).

5. Get regular massages. If you can't afford to, then spend some quality time with your foam roller outside of the gym.

6. Get regular hot baths. Heat increases cellular metabolism and therefore aids recovery. Don't bother with ice baths and other forms of cryotherapy. There's not enough research supporting its use. Jump in a hot bath instead, get comfortable, and relax.

7. Ensure sleep quality. Notice I didn't say get enough sleep? 5 quality hours of sleep is far better than 8 but of poor quality. Take magnesium before bed. Use black-out blinds. Don't look at a screen of any kind within an hour of going to bed. Write down your worries and stresses on a note pad and leave them there until the following morning. Avoid all caffeinated drinks and supplements after 1300hrs. Don't go to bed on an empty stomach, nor go to bed within an hour of eating your evening meal. If you struggle sleeping, try included carbs in your final meal as well as supplementing with 5-Hydroxytryptophan.

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