The art and science of recovery: what works?

The research is pretty unclear. The physiology shows time heals all.

Like most things in athletic performance, it’s tough to tell which specific recovery aids or techniques work the best. Why? It’s subjective. What’s the difference between feeling fully recovered and feeling good? Or the difference between felling a little off, a little slow, or as I like to say, “a little old”?

So, how do we know if a recovery technique works? It depends how you define recovery. In physiology, recovery is the process of replacing old cellular structures with new ones, removing any nasty metabolites you produced, and replenishing whatever energy you used for exercise. Psychologically speaking, recovery is all about your brain feeling good and happy.

However, there’s no objective metric of feelings, and it’s really tough to measure those recovery processes in your cells. That’s what makes the research difficult to implement, aside from looking at changes in performance.

With recovery techniques, we want to know if they are actually influencing those processes inside your cells, or if they’re just making you think you’re recovered. That’s right, many recovery aids are probably placebos. But the placebo effect is so real! Especially in athletics. So it may not really matter if you’re actually recovering faster, or if you just think you are.

There are way too many recovery techniques to discuss, from electrical current therapy to dry needling – which until recently I thought was something only teenagers experimented with. But most techniques are similar in principle to these three…

Massage: In theory, manipulating soft tissue stretches muscle fibers and connective tissue, which alters motor unit recruitment and could signal healing and muscle-building processes. In fact, when you lift weights, it’s the stretching of your muscle fiber against tension that signals your body to get stronger. There is some evidence that massaging rabbits after exercise improves bloodflow and muscle regeneration. And this may apply to foam rolling as well.

In practice, massage hasn’t really been shown to improve performance in subsequent exercise bouts. Some athletes swear by it, but others would rather let their own bodies take care of the healing and recovery process instead of trusting someone else’s hands. There’s just too many variables to control for: timing, technique, experience, etc. And sometimes all that muscle manipulation can initiate some nasty inflammatory responses. I still swear I got mononucleosis from a massage in college, although I’m not exactly sure how.

Bottom line: if it feels good, do it. If it hurts, don’t.

Cryotherapy: sometimes known as “ice”. Ice decreases skin temperature, which signals your nervous system to constrict those local blood vessels. This decreases bloodflow, which reduces swelling and the permeability of your blood vessels to inflammatory immune cells. The thought is that by decreasing inflammation, you can speed recovery.

In practice: when I was competing, the ice bath seemed like more of a post-workout happy hour than an actual recovery tool. Athletes would crack open an ice-cold protein shake, strip down to their skivvies, and soak till their legs were pink and frosty. Ice definitely has a pain-relieving, and possibly anti-inflammatory effect on actual injuries. But it definitely does not influence muscle soreness. And it probably doesn’t speed recovery, at least physiologically.

Bottom line: the ice bath or the -300 degree nitrogen cryosauna can be great for making friends, but not for muscle recovery. If you have an injury, do it; especially with other attractive athletes.

Compression clothing: the rationale for using compression stockings or sleeves is similar to cryotherapy. If you can change sympathetic nervous system activity and reduce bloodflow and inflammation, you can improve recovery.

In practice, compression clothing is widely used. There is evidence that it helps speed recovery, although a marginal amount. However, wearing it during competition or training doesn’t really have an effect outside of keeping your muscles warm. It looks cool, but the compression itself probably isn’t having a physiological influence on endurance performance. Basketball? It might help.

Bottom line: Although you may shoot a better field-goal percentage on the basketball court, it won’t make you move faster. Wear it for recovery in the hour or so after hard training.

When it comes to recovery, rest really is best!

Photo credit: university of central arkansas/Flickr creative commons
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