Understanding The Importance Of Recovery

By Paul Markgraff, Managing Editor, CSCCa Monthly | Twitter: @csccamonthly Facebook: CSCCaMonthly

Let’s just get this out of the way up front. There are many, many more aspects to the physiological process of recovery than the three I have identified in this article. At the same time, proper sleep habits, nutrition and hydration comprise a significant percentage of what coaches and athletes can manage that will help them achieve many of their recovery goals.


Shona Halson is a senior physiologist with the Australian Institute For Sport (AIS), where she has worked for the last 13 years of her career. AIS’s programs are in many ways responsible for Australia’s recent success in during international competition. This includes a total of 189 Olympic Medals since 2000. Halson also served as a member of an expert panel from 2012-2013 for the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, and understands the role of sleep in recovery far better than most.

“Sleep is the most important recovery strategy we have,” says Halson. “Sleep is vital for physical and mental performance and is important for hormone concentrations, reaction time, brain function, mood, carbohydrate use and protein synthesis, pretty much everything related to sport.”

John Parsons, director of the NCAA Sports Science Institute, believes that proper nutrition – and the timing of that nutrition – play a very important role in recovery. From NCAA FBS-level football teams through high school and youth sport programs, nutrition and food/drink choice can be massively important to optimizing recovery.

“Number one is a food-first strategy,” says Parsons. “Athletes waste a lot of time and energy and money on artificial supplementation products as a way of avoiding food, thinking that they prove better than food.”

At all levels of play, Parsons says that emphasizing a food-first strategy of eating fresh, healthful, wholesome foods, fruits, vegetables and lean meats during peak training periods creates a solid nutritional foundation for any athlete. On top of that, Parsons says athletes must be committed to nutritional recovery methods not only during the season, but during the off-season as well.

For athletes in higher-level programs, specific types of protein, simple sugars and fats consumed at the right time create specific recovery rates. For lower-level programs without access to these resources, Parsons says coaches and athletes must not make nutrition too complicated. If student-athletes stay committed to eating healthy, post-workout foods and implement proper snacking strategies all day long, they will see the impact of nutrition on their recovery process.

Though sleep and nutrition play extremely important roles in recovery, athletes will not experience improvement if they ignore proper hydration practices.

“Hydration is crucial,” says Parsons. “Over some period of time during physical activity, practice or competition, the athlete will dehydrate acutely. It is essential that he or she then returns to a hydrated state as quickly as possible, for all kinds of reasons.”

Adequate hydration has physiologic implications for muscular recovery and organ function, he says. Hydration is important to thermoregulation processes, digestion and cognition. Coaches and athletes must track hydration regularly.

“I think in the best-case scenarios, especially during those crucial warm-weather months or two-a-days, you should have a very active system of body weight monitoring and you can determine from that what an athlete’s dehydration and hydration status is,” says Parsons. “You can identify specific instructions for athletes for how they should be hydrating in between sessions in a way that guarantees the next day that they return hydrated or at least in a more hydrated state.”

In the end, hydration, nutrition and sleep don’t matter unless coaches educate student-athletes about the realities of recovery. Coaches must realize the recovery process for athletes is going to take place outside of their zone of influence. Without consistent re-education, none of these strategies will have a longer term effect. At the very least, if coaches aren’t educating their student-athletes, they are going to experience wasted time and energy within the strength and conditioning program. At the worst, coaches will begin to see exertional heat illness, blown ACL’s, moderate to severe soft-tissue damage and athletes who are so physically tired, failure to win will be the least of their concerns.

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