Recovery… Are you doing it right?

Exhausted man runner resting

Recovery – The Right Way

 Written By Osteopath Ashley Gudgeon  

Recovery is the single most important part of any training or exercise program. Recovery allows for improved performance, permits time for our body to heal itself in preparation for the next training load, and decreases the risk of potential injury. All these benefits allow for the attainment of new goals and PB’s. Factors influencing recovery include sleep, mental fatigue/stress levels, nutrition, hydration, frequency and type of training loads, alcohol intake and methods of warm up pre exercise and cool down post exercise. All of these can be manipulated, nurtured and controlled to have positive or negative effects on one’s recovery.

Let’s look at each factor in detail.


Sleep provides crucial time to recover, with adequate levels of sleep allowing time for fundamental processes to occur. Sleep debt, or insufficient levels of sleep, impairs recovery from exercise via several pathways:

          Increases cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) leading to reducing testosterone production, which in turn lowers muscle protein synthesis.

          Reduces the production of growth hormone, which is released when your body enters into a deep sleep stage. This growth hormone, released by your pituitary gland, stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair

          Increases the risk of injury by decreasing balance and postural control which can lead to poor technique and decision making/cognitive performance. A study has shown that athletes who sleep on average <8 hours per night have 1.7 time greater risk of being injured than those who sleep >8 hours.

         Increases risk of infections leading to a cold or flu. Those who sleep <5 hours are 4.5 times more likely to have a cold than those with >7 hours sleep. This can be a cause of skipped sessions or poorer quality of sessions.


Mental Fatigue & Stress:

Mental fatigue and high stress levels has been shown to be linked to:

Decreased endurance performance

Decreased cognitive performance

Decreased intermittent running performance

Increased rate of perceived exertion

Increased risk of overreaching

A recent study from 2015 investigated the relationship between high stress levels, both physical and academic, and injury and illness in Division 1 college footballers. Results showed the rate of injury/illness restrictions during the weeks of high academic stress are nearly twice as high compared to during weeks of low academic stress.


Nutritional advice will differs from client to client dependant on many factors such as training goals (increased muscle mass, fat loss, etc.), training loads (intensity, quantity, strength vs cardio, etc.) and client preferences/beliefs. However, optimising one’s nutrition has been shown to improve recovery, aiming to eat as much fresh food as possible and limit the amount of processed and take away foods. 

Some important factors that need to be considered when evaluating macronutrients and micronutrients include:

          Protein forms the building blocks of muscles, numerous studies show that eating plenty of protein can help increase muscle mass and strength. High levels of protein can also help prevent muscle loss when your body is in a “catabolic” (breaking down) state, such as during weight loss. Consuming protein immediately prior to sleep, after strength training late at night, effectively stimulates muscle protein synthesis and improves whole-body protein balance during overnight recovery.

          Omega 3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory effect, and it is important to buy good quality, well transported and stored products. Good sources of Omega 3 include fish oils and flax seed oils. Omega 3 are often limited in many peoples diets, therefore supplementation may be needed. Reducing inflammation can accelerate healing.

          Zinc is a key substrate for the production of testosterone. It is beneficial to have testosterone available for exercise, in particular, weight training to help with tissue repair, and to build muscle and develop strength. A study showed that supplementing zinc in athletes with depleted testosterone and thyroid hormone from exhaustive exercise was effective in restoration of normal testosterone and thyroid levels. Additionally, zinc plays important role in supporting immune function.

         Magnesium is required for a number of physiological processes related to workout recovery. Magnesium plays an important role as a muscle relaxant, in promoting nerve functioning, cardiac activity, bone health and synthesis of proteins and fats.


Water makes up roughly 65 percent of the human body. Ensuring that you are consuming adequate amounts of water each day is important for a range of bodily processes, however most people do not meet their daily requirement needs. It is common for people to drink sufficient amounts of water during exercise but this is often forgotten post exercise and in the following hours or days. Every type of exercise you complete will result in some level of loss of fluid, and these fluids need to be replenished. Water is involved in many of our vital bodily process and is essential to maintain blood volume, regulate body temperature and allow muscle contractions to take place.


Alcohol can have a major effect on how the body functions, and significantly impair recovery. The factors underlying this negative impact include:

         The impact of alcohol affecting quality and quantity of sleep, which in turns leads to a decrease in protein synthesis and decreases in testosterone secretion.

          Decreased cognitive performance.

          Comprises in immune system functioning, leading to illness/infection.



Warm up and Cool down:

Having an understanding of applied function science allows for the implementation of sports or exercises specific pre and post exercise programs. These programs will be individualised tasks that will get you set up for exercise turning on the muscles needed, gaining the mobility required and begin to get the cardiovascular system pumping building in intensity. The cool down will be similar to the warm up but at a lesser intensity and often involve some walking or light cardio and active stretching to allow the body the best chance to recover. These programs should concentrate on addressing movement in all three planes of motion. Self-myofascial release may be incorporated into both programs.

Warming up has been shown to decrease Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness (DOMS) with no loss of muscle function. Dynamic stretching has been shown to positively influence power, speed, agility, endurance, flexibility, and strength performance when used as a warm-up. The cool down also brings fresh blood into areas to help with lactic acid removal, while bringing your heart rate down to resting pulse quicker. A proper cool down also helps lower a raised heart rate down to resting heart rate safely.

Foam Roller / Self Myofascial Release (SMFR):

     Two recent systematic reviews looking at self-myofascial release (SMFR; one example being the use of a foam roller) has found have a range of valuable effects, including:

     Increased joint ROM short term without impeding athletic performance. SMFR therefore seems suitable for use by athletes or the general population prior to exercise, training sessions or competition.

     SMFR can alleviate Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and may therefore be suitable for use by athletes or the general population for enhancing recovery from exercise, training sessions or competition.

     There is some limited evidence that SMFR may lead to improved arterial function, improved vascular endothelial function, and increased parasympathetic nervous system activity, which may also be useful in recovery.

Finally, there is some evidence that long-term SMFR may lead to improved flexibility, however not all studies supported this link.

Methods to help improve recovery:

Research shows there are several ways you can allow your body the best possible chance to recover.

      Sleep at least 8 hours per night.

      No alcohol consumption post training, although if you must then limiting your intake to 2 drinks for males and 1 drink for females has been shown not to have a large influence on recovery.

      Hydrate – make sure you drink at least 2L of water per day, possibly more, dependent on the amount of exercise

      undertaken. This should be spread out throughout the day, not at one time – our bodies can only absorb a certain amount of water at one time

      Plan your meals in advance and get advice on appropriate nutritional intake required for your exercise or training program.

      Complete both a warm up session before exercise and cool down after any exercise. Ideally this should be specific to thetask/training you are about to complete. The warm up and cool down should address movement in all three planes of motion, include dynamic stretches/movements, strengthening exercises and cardiovascular work.

      No static stretching pre exercise as it has been shown to reduce muscle strength, power and explosiveness.

      Manage workloads by concentrating on building training loads over several weeks, don’t go too hard, too fast.

      Manage your mental fatigue stress levels – mindfulness, meditation, and connecting with friends and family are proven methods to help reduce stress. Occasional training that includes high stress or mental fatigue can be beneficial as it can replicate fatigue late in sports matches.

      Foam rolling / Self myofascial release – Can be used pre and post exercise to help with recovery with no effect on performance, DOMS, joint range of motion and possibly flexibility.

     Compression garments – The use of compression garments appears to reduce the severity of DOMS, accelerate the recovery of muscle function. These findings indicate that wearing a compression garment may improve recovery following intense training and competition; this has implications for both elite athletes and recreational populations.

The infographics used in the above article have been completed by Yann Le Meur who is a sports scientist and researcher. You can follow him on twitter at @YLMSportScience where he posts new infographics on a range of topics from sport, sleep, injury and performance that is based on the latest research.

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