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July 1, 2016

Improving your recovery

Recovery should:

  • Improve the quality of training
  • Prevent overtraining or maladaptive training
  • Decrease the risk of developing an overuse injury
  • Improve performance in competition

Sports scientists have been investigating which are the most appropriate techniques and procedures to assist athletes to recover. While the jury is still out on the use of some of the techniques mentioned below, there is scientific evidence to support their use.


Elite athletes and coaches recognise the importance of sleep as a critical aspect of recovery. Performance is heavily influence by both the quality and quantity of sleep. Bodies are restored and repaired during sleep and the need for sleep increases with increases in training load. Sleep deprivation will not only reduce performance during competition, but also blunt the recovery process and negatively affect adaptation to training. Poor sleep has also been associated with impairments in the functioning of the immune and endocrine (hormone) systems.

There are several nutritional factors which could influence sleep quality and quantity.  There is some evidence which suggests that consuming foods containing tryptophan, an essential amino acid, may improve sleep quality. Eggs, milk, meat, fish, poultry, beans, peanuts, cheese and leafy green vegetables all contain tryptophan, so try and include some of these ingredients in your last meal of the day.

Consuming alcohol before bedtime can negatively affect sleep by causing frequent wakings, increase the frequency and severity of dreams as well as increase sweat rates, gastro-intestinal discomfort, headaches and the need for urinate. Similarly, caffeine should be consumed with caution as it too could negatively impact on sleep. Caffeine is found in a wide range of products and so it is advised that you read the labels of products carefully to ensure the absence of caffeine. There are large inter-individual differences in the tolerance or response to caffeine, but avoid consuming it close to your bedtime. Individuals who have do not usually consume large amounts of caffeine should be especially careful as they will experience larger disturbances in sleep following caffeine consumption. If you habitually train in the late afternoon try and limit your caffeine intake to competitions as this may improve the onset of your sleep.

Hydration may also impact on sleep quality, with the over-consumption of water causing frequent disturbances in sleep in order to urinate. Avoid excessive consumption of fluid between the last training session and bed time in order to prevent this.

Skin temperature has been suggested as a possible target for interventions aimed at improving sleep quality. Warming of the skin in cool environments, usually through the use of hydrotherapy (warm baths), blankets and thermal clothing and cooling the skin in warm environments (cold showers and air conditioning) could improve the onset of sleep.

Other techniques which could improve sleep include:

  • Keeping bedtime consistent
  • Do not nap longer than 45 minutes and avoid late afternoon naps
  • Remove the clock in the bedroom


Stretching is probably the most commonly used method to improve recovery. However, there is very little scientific evidence to suggest that stretching will assist with recovery from strenuous exercise. No detrimental effects have been reported and stretching may increase flexibility and the range of motion and therefore stretching should not necessarily be avoided.


Another commonly used recovery technique, especially during multi-stage mountain bike races, is massage. Interestingly there is little evidence to support the use of massage in improving performance, but anecdotally it is often considered crucial, especially during the longer races (Cape Epic and Joberg2C). It is theorised that massage increases blood flow and hence the removal of metabolic waste products from the active muscles. However, a recent study showed that massage actually impairs blood flow and the clearance of lactic acid. Massage appears to improve the psychological aspects of recovery and is most effective when it is used in conjunction with other recovery techniques such as active recovery. Massage may help reduce the risk of injury too and therefore can be included as part of a recovery protocol.

Compression garments

These garments are designed to apply graduated compression to the limbs in order to improve the return of blood to the heart. Compression is a relatively new and under-researched recovery strategy, but the initial findings are very positive. In two separate studies, compression was shown to improve recovery when compared to a placebo and other recovery techniques. It is important to mention that the compression in these studies was applied after the initial exercise, not during. No negative effects of compression garments on recovery have been reported.

Active recovery

Active recovery usually involves low-volume aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging, swimming or cycling. Active recovery has consistently been shown to be more effective than passive recovery (sitting on the couch with your feet up) in improving subsequent performance. Enhancing blood flow, reducing muscle soreness and increasing range of motion appear to be most important benefits of active recovery.

Recovery is highly dependent on the actions you take after completion of your training or racing. Improving the quality and quantity of your sleep could have the largest effect on your recovery. However, the inclusion of other recovery techniques such as compression and active recovery could further improve your recovery.

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