Recovery… Start thinking about your next session, now!

August 23, 2016 Julia

Post by Sam Donaldson (M.PhtySt, BAppSci(HMS), Physiotherapist APAM SMAM)


Now that the Rio Olympic Games has concluded (and the Paralympics can have its time!), it seemed like a good chance to post some information on recovery from competition.

To maximise what you can achieve out of your body in whatever event takes your fancy, it is imperative that you a) stay healthy, b) stay injury free, and c) can perform at a high level throughout your training program.

It is well established that to maximise your training benefits and therefore perform at your best, you will benefit from staying injury free (1,2). To achieve this, it is important you are adequately recovered for your next training, match or event (3).

So, what are the options for recovery?

  • Appropriate nutrition
  • Active recovery
  • Stretching
  • Hydrotherapy
    • Cold water immersion
    • Contrast bathing/ showers
  • Compression
  • Sleep

All of these modalities for recovery are effective, but it might be useful to consider what you are recovering from, what the next session involves and when the next session is.



Nutrition is vital for restoring the energy used during training or competition, replenishing the H2O lost and the quantity, quality and timing of this can all be considered. This is outside the scope of physiotherapy and therefore outside the scope of this blog post, but there are some great resources out there:

Active and Passive recovery:

Considering active or passive recovery options, this usually involves a significantly reduced level of similar aerobic activity (jog/ walk for runners or swim for swimmers) as well as dynamic stretches or the passive alternative might include massage therapy or light stretching. If we consider a single day competition with multiple events, it might be more beneficial to consider the passive approaches (4). Repeated high intensity running to exhaustion efforts with short recovery times remained at higher intensity and lasted longer when the participants performed passive recovery rather than the active recovery group (4). This suggests that when both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems are required, a passive approach might be warranted. However, when considering power output in a bicycle study, the active recovery group showed significantly better retention of power on repeated efforts (5). This involved only 30 second rest intervals, suggesting that by maintaining a slightly higher heart rate (and blood flow to the working muscle), the anaerobic power was maintained (5).



Cold water immersion versus contrast bathing may come down to personal preference. Subjecting the body to water immersion after exercise has physiological effects, primarily:

  • Reduction in muscle oedema
  • Improved flow of blood around the body
    • Delivery of nutrients to recovering regions
    • Removal of by-products such as lactate (5).

Psychologically, there also seem to be benefits, with athletes reporting improved recovery, improved feelings of freshness and reduced muscle soreness when they have performed a water immersive therapy (5). It is still an area of debate and ongoing research, but the body of evidence suggests:

  • Cold Water Immersion: 5-15 minutes of immersion in 10-15° Celcius (6),
  • Contrast therapy: <20° x 2-5 minutes followed by >36° for 2-3 minutes repeated. Total up to 15 minutes and finish on cold water rather than hot (6).

This is usually done in the first two hours after exercise, but can still be useful up to 24 hours after, particularly if the session was especially exhausting.



Compression garments have shown sound improvements in similar measures of physiological recovery including power output (cycling), improved post-exercise lactate elimination and reduced post-exercise muscle soreness (7). These are often worn after exercise/ competition and can be work overnight if it doesn’t disturb your sleep!



Finally, sleeping is one of the best forms of recovery (in our opinion). Players that suffered with reduced sleep in football reported very poor recovery when asked subjectively (8). It’s reported that sleep plays a vital role in restoring normal cellular function, metabolism of by-products from exercise (e.g. lactate), as well as restoring nerve function both in the limbs and in the brain (9). Everyone varies in their sleep habits, so ensuring you get a typical, good night’s sleep will ensure you have done what you can to recover the mind and the body.


  1. Hägglund M, Waldén M, Magnusson H, Kristenson K, Bengtsson H, Ekstrand J. Injuries affect team performance negatively in professional football: an 11-year follow-up of the UEFA Champions League injury study. British journal of sports medicine. 2013 Aug 1;47(12):738-42.
  2. Gabbett TJ. The training—injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder?. British journal of sports medicine. 2016 Mar 1;50(5):273-80.
  3. Laux P, Krumm B, Diers M, Flor H. Recovery–stress balance and injury risk in professional football players: a prospective study. Journal of sports sciences. 2015 Dec 14;33(20):2140-8.
  4. Dupont G, Blondel N, Berthoin S. Performance for short intermittent runs: active recovery vs. passive recovery. European journal of applied physiology. 2003 Aug 1;89(6):548-54.
  5. Wilcock IM, Cronin JB, Hing WA. Physiological response to water immersion. Sports medicine. 2006 Sep 1;36(9):747-65.
  6. Versey NG, Halson SL, Dawson BT. Water immersion recovery for athletes: effect on exercise performance and practical recommendations. Sports medicine. 2013 Nov 1;43(11):1101-30.
  7. Engel F, Stockinger C, Woll A, Sperlich B. Effects of Compression Garments on Performance and Recovery in Endurance Athletes. InCompression Garments in Sports: Athletic Performance and Recovery 2016 (pp. 33-61). Springer International Publishing.
  8. Fullagar HH, Skorski S, Duffield R, Julian R, Bartlett J, Meyer T. Impaired sleep and recovery after night matches in elite football players. Journal of sports sciences. 2016 Jul 17;34(14):1333-9.
  9. Fullagar HH, Duffield R, Skorski S, Coutts AJ, Julian R, Meyer T. Sleep and recovery in team sport: current sleep-related issues facing professional team-sport athletes. IJSPP. 2015 Mar 10;10(8).