Recovery is the process whereby there is restoration of something to its former state of health or proper functioning. Some definitions go even further, including not only restoration but also achieving a better state than the original condition. This is the definition we would like to use as recovery allows the body to integrate the changes made by the load it endured and adapt, therefore making us stronger, faster and having more endurance according to the activities we engaged in.
When we talk about recovery in physical activity and sports, we have to start from the fact that each and every person has a set point of equilibrium that the body tries to maintain. This set point is what our body recognises as it’s state of proper functioning, an ideal and optimal state where the body feels “this is me” and it works to maintain it. We call this homeostasis.
Homeostasis is responsible for our bodies resistance to change and why we struggle to maintain changes we have made such as weight loss. As soon as the effort to lose weight is gone, the body tries to return to its set weight. This is also why it is important to focus on a lifestyle rather than short bouts of effort. When we maintain a certain state long enough, it eventually adjusts our set point to the one we have been maintaining. This is the process of adaptation.
Different factors affect our recovery such as our own body genetics, sex, fitness and general condition level, training load, as well as stress levels, health status, nutrition, lifestyle, sleep and environmental factors such as weather, humidity, etc.
Recovery may be active or passive. Active recovery means resting from a certain activity or resting a certain muscle group, while still being physically active through a different sport or exercise modality. Passive recovery is when we are not engaged in any physical activity while resting such as laying in a warm bath or just sleeping. The process of recovery may be immediate – what we do right after a workout – or long term – what we do between exercise sessions or seasons. These usually determine the selected recovery modality, according to the desired goal. For example, in an off-season, a runner wishing to keep fit may choose to do cross-training by swimming (active, long term recovery).
This is one of the most common forms of recovery. It is a form of active recovery and is done immediately after a workout. It consists of light cardio exercises and movements to bring down the heart rate, while still facilitating circulation to decrease the lactate build-up in muscles. You could choose jogging, cycling, swimming, walking or stretching as your cool down method.
This is very similar to cool down in that it is an active form of recovery, but it differs from cool down in that cross training is not limited to cardio. Cross training in simple terms means doing a different activity or sport to that which you were doing. It allows your muscles and joints to rest from a certain activity while maintaining your fitness levels.
This is the use of water to facilitate physiological processes that aid in recovery and healing of the body. It may be done in the form of showers, immersion baths, steam baths and sauna, and using cold water, hot water or a contrast therapy done alternating hot and cold water. Water is said to have an effect on heart rate, blood flow, temperature changes and regulation that affects our different body systems.
Massage is said to have many benefits, from muscle relaxation, decreasing pain to facilitating blood circulation and removal of metabolic waste. Different techniques are used in the recovery process according to preference and accessibility. Some people may choose to use manual massage techniques while others may choose to use massage tools or technology. The key is that the person performing the massage be knowledgeable in order to avoid injury.
Compression garments were originally used to treat different circulatory conditions but were later found to be beneficial for sports recovery. The principle is that the compression decreases the space available between tissues, which therefore decreases inflammation through swelling and decreases muscle pain, as well as assisting the effectiveness of blood circulation.
Last but not least is sleep. Sleep is our body’s natural rebooting and repairing system. Tissue repair, replenishing energy stores, memory consolidation, immunity boost all happens during sleep. This is the ultimate form of recovery and therefore it is very important to get enough sleep daily.
Recovery is a vital part of our lives and affects much more than feeling tired. It is also extremely important for athletic performance. There are different modalities you may choose to use for your recovery; however, it is important to note there is no “one size fits all” approach and we ought to do what works best for us as individuals.
Time to re-evaluate your habits and make sure you have integrated recovery into your plan.
Chantal Pretto from Pretto Physiotherapy specialises in sports and orthopaedics. They take a complete biomechanical approach to identify the underlying causes of the problem, rather than just treating the symptoms. They specialise in working with runners, as well as other sportspeople. Read more about Chantal Pretto here.