Rest and Recovery for Athletes
As athletes, we are taught that recovery is something that has to be earned only if and when we have achieved exceptional standards. Recovery is not something that you have to work for or earn by any means; it is a necessary part of training both physically and mentally. Athletes are constantly taught to push through fatigue, discomfort, soreness, and even pain to reach their goals. Often times athletes perceive recovery as laziness because of the lack of doing that is involved in the process. Having this mentality is a double-edged sword for most athletes as there is always a drive to do more and never stop until the result is achieved. However, recovery is just as important as the need to push your body beyond its comfort levels; recovery is what strengthens your muscles and helps prepare your body and mind for another season of training.
Some athletes are genetically designed to recover quickly while others take more time. This can contribute to muscle soreness and the body’s ability to flush lactic acid due to exercise. Athletes overwork the same muscles every day and without recovery can result in harmful effects when it comes to how your body recovers. Not only does recovery prepare your body for optimal performance but it prevents the onset of fatigue and low energy levels due to lactic acid buildup. Genetics play a role in recovery as the average time needed to recover from exercise depends on your genes. There are two types of genes primarily associated with recovery; the MMP3 gene and CKM gene. The MMP3 gene is important for repairing muscles and tissues while the CKM gene helps with muscle repair as well as inflammatory response.
Other non-genetic factors that influence recovery include stress levels and nutrition. Highly stressed individuals will likely struggle to recover after intense exercise or extensive competition. During my freshman year at UF, I struggled to find a balance between overtraining and resting. I felt exhausted going into almost every practice and knew I wasn’t training or performing to the level that I had expected. My entire mindset revolved around training and proving myself that I completely disregarded recovery. It got to the point where I would sleep for hours at a time and not eat between practices because I was physically drained and thought my body just needed rest. I didn’t want to consider recovery as an option because in my mind recovery was equivalent to laziness and if I wasn’t pushing myself 24/7 I wasn’t doing enough. I felt anxious about taking the rest that my body needed and allowing myself time to recover especially during hard weeks/ months of training.
Anxiety is a normal reaction to rest days and can often prevent individuals from feeling deserving of an off day after days or even weeks of rigorous training. I can attest to this as an athlete who has gone through intense training and the emotions of wanting rest but not knowing if rest was more important than the training itself. I am here to tell you that recovery is necessary and shouldn’t be treated as a reward but as a regular implementation in your training.
Regardless of your event or distance, recovery is necessary for every athlete. When I was in college I would be put in different groups throughout the week; sprint, middle distance, and sometimes IM. Each of these groups was incredibly different and required various yardage, specialties, and specifics geared towards the individual. Everyone always wanted to be put in the sprint group because they assumed sprinters had the shortest practices and got the most amount of recovery. In some ways this is true but only because sprinters need to train differently than someone who swims distance. Genetically, sprinters need more time to recover and are less likely to recover from back-to-back intense training sessions. Some bodies are more genetically geared to handle metabolic stress that is demanded of them daily whereas others will feel exhaustion much earlier without proper rest and recovery.
Recovery looks different for every individual and isn’t a one size fits all process. The reason why we need recovery is that our bodies need time to restore, replace, and rebuild any nutrients or mass that was lost during training. Nutrition plays a huge role in the recovery process and has major benefits on how your body regenerates. Here are a few tips to get started with recovery and help your body restore what was lost during your training!
○ Sleep: Try to aim for at least 8-10 hours of sleep each night. Not only is rest important for recovery but it allows your body the time it needs to regenerate. As elite athletes training multiple times a day, sleep is that much more important to overcome the intense levels of stress our bodies go through. 8-10 hours can be a challenge for those who have demanding school schedules or early morning workouts. The best way to ensure the most amount of sleep is to pre-plan for morning workouts.
Have your bag and breakfast packed and ready to go in the mornings so you save time. I would lay out my clothes, pack my swim bag, and have breakfast made the night before practice so all I would have to worry about in the mornings was waking up. Here’s a sport safe option for assisting in sleep.
○ IDLife Sleep strips can be used if you have difficulty falling asleep
○ Fluids and electrolytes: Staying hydrated can help reduce symptoms of muscle fatigue and injury. Dehydration can lead to a rise in body temperature and heart rate which can contribute to exhaustion and make exercising feel much more difficult. Hydration is also associated with mental function and alertness. Many electrolyte drinks contain a number of ingredients that genetically work against the body. Here’s a sport safe option with clean ingredients and good electrolyte balance.
○ NUUN Tablets
○ Replacing carbohydrates: A true recovery window for carbohydrates is about 30 minutes after exercise. Carbs are your body’s main source of fuel and energy and can even reduce the sensation of soreness. Try out these foods to replace carbs!
○ Purely Elizabeth Granola
○ Old Fashioned Rolled Oats
■ Aldi/ Target
○ Repair muscle with protein: Your muscles are naturally going to go through wear and tear throughout training and protein is a primary source to help repair your muscles. Just like carbohydrates, protein should be consumed within a 30-minute window after exercise. Here are some quick and easy protein go-tos after a workout!
○ Magic Spoon Bars/ Cereal
○ RX Cereal
■ Target/ Walmart/ Walgreens
○ 3 Wishes Cereal
○ Evolve Protein Shakes
○ Relax/engage in mindfulness: Your mind needs recovery too. Not only does recovery influence the way your body feels and performs physically but also impacts you psychologically. Try to incorporate some mindfulness into your recovery process to give your mind the relaxation it needs to reset.
○ Meditopia App
○ Yoga / Stretching
I became more aware of the benefits of recovery as I went through college. I realized the importance of listening to my body and not ignoring extreme signs of exhaustion/fatigue. I had moments where I didn’t know what to say or how to tell my coaches because I was afraid that they would think I wasn’t trying or didn’t care. However, in speaking up and having conversations I understood that being an athlete isn’t just about listening to your coaches, you have to be able to listen to yourself and your needs as well. I believe that great athletes and coaches have mutual respect for one another and aren’t afraid to communicate even through uncomfortable conversations/ situations. Speaking up can be a very helpful process for you and your coach. Not only does it bring awareness to how you feel and how your body works, but it also allows your coach to understand the best way to approach your training and recovery.
Listen to your body and appreciate all that it does for you on a daily basis. It’s not always easy to show yourself love or feel worthy of rest but just know you are always deserving of it. Remember that rest does not equal laziness and it’s okay to take time for yourself once in a while. Do what makes you happy and enjoy the process of giving back to yourself!