The Importance of Recovery Following Exercise and Competition

You may have seen athletes at international athletic events, or even at a community level, undertake different methods to help their body recover for the next round of competition. This could include what they eat/drink, what they do to cool down and even what they wear post the event. You may be wondering what it’s all about. How important it is? And what type of recovery is appropriate for you? However, before we get into the benefits of the different recovery modalities we first need to understand the goals of recovery.

During intense bouts of exercise the body undergoes muscle tissue breakdown, depletion of energy stores (muscle glycogen) and fluid loss, all of which can result in exhaustion and fatigue. If these symptoms aren’t resolved the athlete may not be able to perform as well in the next round. It also increases their risk of getting injured. Recovery is therefore important for any athlete. The recovery process allows for the following:

  • Adequate replenishment of energy stores, including muscle glycogen.
  • Bringing the heart rate and blood pressure down to a normal resting level.
  • Muscle recovery and growth.
  • Resolution of muscle soreness.
  • Psychological recovery.
  • An opportunity to address potential injuries.

Factors such as a person’s age, fitness level, and the intensity or type of competition can significantly influence an athlete’s rate of recovery. Additionally, if you have sustained an injury during the activity appropriate first aid and the RICER principal should be adopted, along with seeking an assessment from a physiotherapist or medical officer.

There are various types of recovery methods including active recovery (often referred to as a cool down), stretching and even ice baths (cold water immersion). These will all help bring the heart rate and blood pressure down to a resting level, reduce cramping and muscle soreness, and allow the athlete to mentally wind down and debrief. However for an athlete, to give them the best chance of recovering and to prepare for their next round of competition, the three most important recovery principles encompass sleep, hydration and nutrition.

Getting a quality eight hours sleep allows for the physiological processes of growth hormone release and regulation of cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) levels. Growth hormone is an important part of the body’s endocrine system, and is essential for muscle repair and growth. Cortisol levels directly impact the body’s ability to digest glucose. Since endurance is based on the body’s ability to metabolise and synthesise glucose for later use, quality sleep becomes even more important for athletes specialising in endurance-based sports like running and swimming. Quality sleep, as a part of the recovery process, has also been strongly linked to reducing the risk of injury and illness susceptibility.

The role of nutrition post exercise is to help the body replenish energy stores (glycogen that is the fuel used by the body’s muscles) and stimulate protein synthesis (increase and repair the major muscles utilised during the activity). It is recommended that athletes should aim to consume a carbohydrate rich meal within the first hour after activity, as this is the period where the body works best to create and store muscle glycogen.

Sweating is a natural by-product of exercise; however losing too much sweat can lead to dehydration and result in fatigue, light headiness and potential cramping. Sweat contains two key elements: water and electrolytes. Water plays the key role in maintaining body temperature, as well as hydrating the body’s cells. Electrolytes help the body retain fluid and are essential for nerve and muscle function. It is often recommended that every kilogram lost through sweat should be replaced with a combination of water and a sport drink containing sodium.

The recovery process is an important principle that should be incorporated by every athlete from community to elite level. Although recovery methods may vary between individuals, the three consistent features of adequate sleep, nutrition and hydration need to be planned into any training program. By recovering well you reduce your risk of sustaining an injury in the short and long term, as well as allowing yourself to perform at your best.

About the Author:

Liam Williams is a Physiotherapist at Physiotas on the North West Coast.

Liam graduated from the University of Queensland with honours in 2016. Liam’s areas of professional interest include all aspects of musculoskeletal physiotherapy. He recently traveled away with the Queensland under 18 men’s hockey squad as the team Physiotherapist for their national carnival.

His personal interests include spending time with friends and family, as well as playing football.