Recovery strategies in sport and exercise
Recovery strategies in sport and exercise

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Recovery strategies in sport and exercise

3 The role of recovery strategies

So far we have seen that there are a range of recovery strategies available. In the next activity we will see some of these recovery strategies being used and consider the potential role of recovery strategies in the athlete’s training and competition schedule.

Activity 3 Recovery: the next frontier in sporting progress?

Allow 20 minutes

Watch the video clip below and answer the questions that follow. The clip was filmed in 2015 as part of the Channel 4 TV series Chasing Perfection, co-produced by The Open University, and features sport scientists and coaches from the UK and USA describing their use of recovery strategies with elite athletes.

  • What recovery strategies do we see being used in the clip?
  • What is the purpose of recovery strategies?
  • Are recovery strategies always beneficial?
Download this video clip.Video player: Chasing perfection
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Transcript: Chasing perfection

No matter how good your training is out here on the pitch, it’s only as good as your ability to recover from it. I’ve grabbed a hold of that, that recovery is no longer just this passive thing that you do in between training sessions; that there’s actually recovery training.
As an athlete, you want to train as intensely as you can, to be able to get fitter, faster, stronger, and the idea of the recovery strategy is to allow you to do that. There is a range of recovery techniques that are used in sport currently.
Some particularly popular modes – cold water immersions, compression garments, various nutritional antioxident-type strategies, neuromuscular electral simulations. There’s lots of different things out there; essentially, what they’re all trying to do is influence or modulate the stress response to exercise.
So things like inflammation, oxidative stress, and muscle damage – by trying to influence these stress responses to exercise, we are trying to either reduce the damage response to exercise, so that we can come back and recover faster, or we’re trying to accelerate the recovery of these damage responses.


What’s normal? Well, the normal line of return back to normal is this. Can we steepen that? Are there modalities that we can use to tip that line up, like this, so now it squeezes down the timeline?
So now instead of 72 hours to recover from a really heavy strength training session, which we’ve seen historically – wow, are there some things we can do with kinetotherapy? Is there some things we can do with some of the old school dry needling? Is there some things we can do, or not do, with stretching?
Is there some things we can do with compression therapy or cryogenics? Is there some things we can do with the central nervous system, in terms of mood and changes? I mean, think of all the crazy things that- can we potentially steepen that return angle? Now, what does that allow me to do? Train more intense, and be able to train in more density.
So they had a hard training day today. But we still have another training day tomorrow. So we need them to start their recovery immediately, so by the time they come tomorrow, within 24 hours – 12 to 24 hours – they’re ready to train again.
So with the contrast baths, we’re going between 56 degrees and 104 degrees. They’re going to spend a little bit more time in the cold tub. They’re only going to spend a minute in the hot tub, and they’re going to alternate, going back and forth.
And what that does is it creates this natural pump, so you’ve got this constriction of the muscles, when you’re in the cold tub; and then they relax when you’re in the hot tub, and they constrict again when you’re in the cold tub. You create this natural pump that is also helping to regenerate the nervous system.
Then we’re also going to use the NormaTec boots, and get that even more compression, so we’re working out all those by-products that have now built up into their muscle, in reaction to their training, or as a product of their training, and so by actively recovering both, in a passive way, we’re just getting the body revved up to start its recovery.


I think the recovery techniques are constantly improving and changing, as well as the training techniques and the nutrition. We go down to what’s happening in the blood levels of the athlete, and of course, we look at CK, which is a precursor for muscle breakdown. If an athlete has high levels, then we know, OK, maybe today is not a good day to push the training session.
A lot of the things here we’re really pushing the limit with, and we definitely leave a lot up to the athletes. We like to set the buffet, and they either like it, and they take what they like, and they go from there. If we wait for a lot of things to be proven, then we’re a little bit behind the curve.
So in some cases, we do take a little bit of a risk, maybe, where it hasn’t been totally proven through research, but at the end of the day, if an athlete believes something is working, it’s working.
It’s very interesting to think about recovery. In some respects, it could be very important, if an athlete were going into a competition, we want to make sure that they’re recovered, but in the off season, when they’re training, that recovery modality could possibly spoil the adaptation for the athlete. Sometimes it’s good to not go in the chryosauna, not ice, or not use the compression pants, and allow that athlete’s muscles to get sore, so then they have a better adaptation to the training.
There’s a big head-to-head on the recovery versus adaptation story at the moment. When we do do exercise, we get these stress responses, and it’s these inflammatory and oxidative stress responses that signal to our genes to produce more proteins and adapt in response to these proteins.
Now if we start to try and dampen down these inflammatory responses, and oxidative stress responses, are we dampening down the signals to the genes that then express the proteins that then help us adapt?


What we’re trying to do is take this a level deeper by looking at what we call the methylation of genes within the DNA. There is a theory that if something like cold water immersion is to be having a negative effect on adaptation, it may be because we are switching off some of the genes that are associated with muscle hypertrophy.
We’re close, but we haven’t figured it out yet, and wow, what if we could rewrite some of those curves? What if we could rewrite the steepness of return and recovery for different athletes, depending on the stimulus. Wow, what if we could do that? What if?
It’s exciting, because I think that could potentially be the new frontier, is this recovery regeneration space. It could be the limiting factor to how much training and how steep a training we can take on these athletes. Pretty exciting space.
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We see various recovery strategies used in the video. For example, in the section with Lindsey Anderson we see members of the Brazilian Paralympic Team using contrast baths and compression boots, and in the section with Tyler Jewell we see cryotherapy being used. Various other strategies are also mentioned.

According to those interviewed in the clip, the purpose of recovery strategies is to modulate the stress response to exercise, allowing individuals to recover more quickly and consequently train harder. Interestingly, Phillip Bell and Tyler Jewell both suggest the recovery strategies are not always beneficial and may actually inhibit the adaptation that occurs in response to hard training.

This demonstrates the need for specificity in the use of recovery strategies. For example, you may consider it inappropriate to use recovery strategies during a period of training when you want to maximise adaptation, however, you might consider it appropriate to use recovery strategies during competition (e.g. where you have several rounds or matches in a small time period) when you want the athlete to feel refreshed and recovered.

Hopefully you are beginning to recognise the need for evidence to support and underpin the use of recovery strategies both in general and at specific times. There is a wealth of research that has been undertaken to examine the impact of recovery strategies and we will begin to examine some of this in the next section.


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