Athlete Recovery

Recovery Strategies For Today’s Athletes

By Keith Gray, MSCC, Philadelphia Eagles

With so many athletes soon starting their seasons and pre-seasons, it is imperative for the strength and conditioning coaching profession to make sure we are providing a safe and healthy environment for athletes to train and practice in. There are many ways to accomplish this, but they all revolve around the same basic principles. Put the athlete’s well-being first and remember that we are working with someone else’s daughter or son.

Training is difficult, practice is hard and games are physically demanding. They are supposed to be; that’s one of the reasons athletes compete. The ability to recover from each of these can play a large role in an athlete’s capacity to perform at a high level on a daily or weekly basis. As strength and conditioning coaches, we often get wrapped up in what our training programs look like. We owe it to the athletes to devote as much time to developing recovery strategies as well.

There are many recovery protocols and modalities coaches can recommend and athletes can utilize to help them recover from the stress placed on their bodies.

First, consider these three strategies athletes can do on their own and have the most control over:

Sleep – Sleep, and rest in general, is one of the biggest factors that can aid in an athlete’s recovery, but it is often one of the most overlooked. Sleep must be a priority. Sleeping in a very dark, cold environment can facilitate quality sleep. Establishing a nighttime routine can also be very beneficial to a good night’s sleep. Alertness throughout the day can be aided by a quick power nap in the afternoon. As coaches, we shouldn’t claim to be prioritizing performance and then require our athletes to get up at 5:00am every day for workouts.

Nutrition – An athlete’s body runs on fuel, and the better the fuel put into the body, the better the output will be. A well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, carbs and proteins is essential, not only for recovery, but for peak performance. In the attempt to eat healthy, athletes should not forget to also include healthy fats in their diet. There is an abundance of research studies that demonstrate how nutrition affects performance.

Hydration – As with nutrition, hydration plays a huge role in performance and overall wellness of an athlete. Fluid loss has a direct effect on performance, so staying hydrated throughout the day and during training will help the athletes significantly. Athletes should drink half of their body weight in ounces per day.

Next, incorporate some of these options as time and resources allow:

After these areas are addressed, coaches can get into the different types of modalities athletes can use to help facilitate recovery. There are so many available to choose from now, some way more involved and complex than others. Each individual athlete will also begin to have their own personal preferences and opinions as to what works for them, so be sure to keep that in mind. Every athlete will respond to therapy differently, so let each individual experiment with different modalities and find what works best for them.

Hydrotherapy – There are various ways to use hydrotherapy as recovery. Cold tubs are great for post workout recovery sessions, but a good rule of thumb is to keep the session length under 10 minutes. Contrast baths, or going back and forth from hot to cold tubs, are an excellent way to reduce inflammation without being exposed to cold water for too long. Also, simply walking in a pool, regardless of temperature is very useful for recovery, due to the hydrostatic pressure of the water combined with movement. Remember: “Movement is Therapy.”

Epsom salt soaks are great for relaxation, and a great way to get magnesium absorbed through the skin. Magnesium is a mineral that has been found to aid in reducing muscle soreness and is vital for energy production (https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/ ). One additional method athletes are using more often is Float Tanks, or deprivation tanks. These are highly-concentrated salt bath tanks where an athlete floats in the salt, in a dark tank for lengthy periods. Many athletes also use this for relaxation or focus therapy.

Massage – If you are lucky enough to have access to massage therapists, they can be vital to the health and wellness of your athletes. If not, recommending massage therapy to your athletes is a no-brainer in my honest opinion. Massage therapy is a very useful tool to help athletes recover, both from a physical and mental standpoint, and is a big part of our program. Our athletes take their massage work very seriously. There are many different types of massage, from sports flushes to deep tissue to relaxation, and there are therapists who specialize in each. Be sure to always use a Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT) to ensure proper therapy and avoid liability issues.

Compression – Compression of the muscles is an excellent way to help reduce muscle soreness, and there are many ways to go about it. Many teams have compression boots, Game Ready machines or things of that nature that athletes have access to. Another option that is newer to the industry is called band flossing, made famous by Kelly Starrett, author of the book Becoming a Supple Leopard. Elastic bands are wrapped around joints or muscle bellies to compress them, and then the athlete moves through specific ranges of motion. This is an excellent tool for joint range of motion and mobility.

Soft Tissue Work – Soft tissue work and myofascial release could technically be placed in the compression category, but we separate it out since it generally uses props. A foam roller, lacrosse ball, myofascial ball or PVC pipe is used to compress the muscle to decongest the muscle tissue. This is generally easy for the athletes to do on their own. You can begin or end workouts with this type of work, and it can be very beneficial for all parts of the body. And you can use any type of equipment. An $8 PVC pipe from Home Depot is just as good as a $50 foam roller, and much better on the budget. Roll each body part for 30 seconds to one minute in duration.

Body Tempering – Body Tempering is a newer modality on the recovery scene and was created by world-record-setting powerlifter, Donnie Thompson. Put simply, it is reverse foam rolling, but the roller is a very heavy metal pipe of some sort. It works to compress and diffuse the tissue very aggressively.  This has become a very useful tool for our athletes, and a staple of our recovery sessions for our team. You can do both static tempering where the pipe sits on the muscle, or dynamic tempering where the pipe is rolled back and forth along the muscle. Be sure to teach the athletes how to administer this therapy, as it will save your own back and hamstrings in the long run! https://bodytempering.com/body-tempering/

Yoga – Yoga has been used for centuries and is widely considered beneficial for both physical and mental therapy. The benefits of yoga are extensive and can help athletes of any sport with posture, mobility, strength or just overall relaxation or mental wellness. If this is something you have access to, it is a no-brainer in my opinion.

Acupuncture – Acupuncture has been around for centuries and is something that many athletes swear by as a recovery tool. Thin needles are placed into the skin at meridian points along the body. As with massage therapy, there are many different kinds of acupuncture to consider. However, this is something that you need to do a lot of research on to find a qualified practitioner to make sure they are doing it safely.

Other Methods – There are many other methods that can be used for recovery, including: Saunas, Steam Rooms, Cryotherapy, Low Level Cardio and even Heart Rate Variability (HRV), though this one is extremely involved and requires some dedication. The key to recovery is to find the options that the athletes believe are helping them feel better, even if it’s only in their head.

Final Thoughts:

These recovery strategies should be kept to a minimum during the off-season to allow for proper training adaptations to occur, and should only become more widely and intensely used during the competitive season. Also, the recovery methods should be varied so as to not allow the athlete to adapt to the effects of each method.

As coaches, the last thing to remember is the athlete needs to have something to recover from. Hard work must precipitate any form of recovery. If they haven’t done anything, they don’t need to recover. If the athlete skipped a workout, resting on the couch might not be considered as much recovery as just plain laziness. Athletes need to earn their recovery. Now, that doesn’t mean we should try and pound them into the ground in the attempt to make them “earn it,” but they should feel as if they need these recovery options or they shouldn’t use them.

Though there is a lot of information in this article, do not overcomplicate recovery. Make it like your training hopefully is –  choose simple things and do them well.

Ultimately, our job is to prepare the athletes for practice and competition in the safest manner possible.  This not only includes the training programs we design, but the recovery strategies we utilize and recommend. As their coach, and someone entrusted with their care, be sure to put the athlete’s best interest at the forefront of everything you do and don’t put them at risk in any way.

About the Author:

Keith Gray is an assistant strength and conditioning coach for the world champion Philadelphia Eagles. He has been SCCC certified since 2001, and earned his MSCC certification in 2012. Before joining the Eagles in February of 2012, Gray was a full-time member of the University of Georgia strength and conditioning staff for 13 years. 

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