Recovery strategies – fads or functional?
Updated: Sep 14, 2022
Ice baths, foam rolling, sports drinks and meditation are some of the more common strategies that athletes use for recovery, but are they backed up by science? Can bathing in red wine after a workout aid recovery? Is drinking beer after exercise really that bad? Strap yourself in for a discussion about why recovery is important, and what you can do to recover effectively.
Recovery is defined as the return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength. It can come in many forms including; active and passive, hydration, nutrition or rest. Recovery is a crucial component of performance, injury prevention and general health. Scrolling through social media you might spot your favourite athletes in a cryotherapy chamber, preaching about their favourite sports drink or wearing giant inflatable boots (otherwise known as pneumatic compression boots). When former NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire famously bathed in red wine as he felt it boosted his recovery (‘vinotherapy’), the internet erupted with people searching for places where this recovery option was offered. While you may have guessed there is minimal evidence that vinotherapy can aid with recovery, it does pose the question of whether recovery strategies we see famous athletes performing are as physiologically beneficial as what we once thought.
So, let’s get started and break this down using the evidence –
STRONG evidence (things that research says does work):
Sleep: the most powerful recovery tool known to science. Christie Aschwanden, lead science writer at FiveThirtyEight (1), perfectly sums up sleep as the “equivalent of taking your body to the repair shop”. During deep sleep, the body releases hormones involved with tissue repair, and is also an important time for motor and cognitive skills development. Sleep allows for adaptation to occur and should be prioritized so athletes can perform at their best (2, 3). We've written on the importance of sleep in our previous blogs here and here.
Stress management: this one may surprise you, but psychological stress has been shown to decrease the body’s ability to adapt and improve after training. Importantly, some research points to mental stress increasing the risk of suffering an injury. Many athletes are now incorporating stress coping techniques, such as meditation, into their training schedules (4, 5). Read more about stress management in our blog here.
Monitor training loads: put simply, it’s important that your training schedule should include blocks of recovery and adequate time for rest. There appears to be no magic number and everyone’s training schedule will be different. Additionally, if you’re feeling unwell your body is already under stress, it’s okay to have a lighter session, or take a day off from training to ensure your body can bounce back (link to exercise when sick blog here) (6)
LOW evidence (recovery techniques that are probably more fad than functional):
Sports drinks: sorry everyone, but there is very limited evidence that popular sports drinks improve recovery, no matter how tasty they are (7)
Ice baths: a strangely popular recovery strategy, the basic idea behind ice baths is to reduce inflammation and relieve sore areas of the body by numbing it. There is limited evidence that ice baths are a useful form of recovery, and in fact, they may be impeding the body’s ability to heal (8). If you’re using ice baths regularly and hate them – feel free to use this as an excuse to stop them!
Cryotherapy: many people surprisingly do enjoy standing in a giant nitrogen filled tank, however there is no convincing evidence that cryotherapy offers any lasting effects, and the results are susceptible to the placebo effect (9) (more on the placebo effect shortly)
Infrared sauna: most people agree that these are a much more pleasant recovery tool than taking an ice bath. I’m honestly a bit sad that there is limited evidence that infrared saunas can boost recovery…they feel so good at the time! (10)
Stretching: whether you stretch before or after your workouts, there appears to be no reduction in delayed-onset-muscle-soreness in healthy adults, sorry (11).
Have I missed your favourite go-to recovery strategy? It might sit in the in-between effectiveness category:
Massage: this recovery strategy is probably loved by most athletes! The evidence supporting massage as an effective recovery strategy is surprisingly quite limited. Massage makes athletes feel better, but probably not because of the reasons we originally thought (e.g. massage does not clear lactate). Much of the benefits of massage and how it can influence recovery remain a bit of a mystery. From one interesting study (performed on rats only, not humans) they found that massage could promote muscle healing (1, 12).
Compression garments: active wear is having a fashion moment, but are compression tights useful for what they’re intended for? The answer is maybe. There is a small amount of evidence that compression tights do reduce delayed-onset-muscle-soreness (13). Fashion and function!
Pneumatic compression boots: Talking about fashion…these giant inflating boots look very cool, but the evidence on their ability to speed up recovery remains mixed (14). The main strategy of them is to promote blood flow and clear by-products of exercise, however, this can be achieved through other active recovery like walking or gentle cycling
Foam rolling/self-massage balls: I will admit my bias here – I love my massage ball and foam roller, and I commonly instruct my patients to use them if they feel sore. Various studies show that foam rollers/self-massage balls can make us feel better and can reduce muscle soreness after exercise, but how they work is still not well understood. Some research indicates that most of the effects of foam rolling is neural, however, the evidence is slim and may be due to the placebo effect (1, 12).
So, you’ve made it to the end of this article and maybe some of your recovery methods have been de-bunked. However, it’s also important to focus on how recovery makes us feel, and as such, understand the power of a placebo. In a nutshell, if you think something is good for your body and you strongly believe it will work, it will probably work. For example; if before you have an ice bath you believe the ice bath will make you feel less sore, then you’re more likely to perceive your soreness has decreased after the ice bath. So, while some athletes swear by certain methods that may not be backed by science (let’s not forget the concept of vinotherapy), if it makes them believe that they have an edge on the competition then that too can be an important component of recovery.
Ultimately, when it comes to choosing a recovery method, sleep is perceived to be the best and most powerful tool to encourage your body to heal and adapt to the physiological changes of exercise. Scheduling recovery time into your workout schedule is also important, and if you fill that recovery time with what feels good to you (and causes no harm), then go for it. The bottom line to recovery is that it should make you feel good, well rested, and confident you will perform at your best.
Finally, I know that most of you are reading this to find out whether beer really does impede your recovery, so without further delay; research shows that provided it is with a decent meal and you predominantly rehydrate with water, a small amount of alcohol is probably not detrimental to your recovery. You’re welcome! (1)
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