Coaches and athletes are in constant search for a “leg up” on the competition. Let’s face it, every little advantage counts when it comes to equipment, training, nutrition, mental preparation, and recovery. Optimizing human performance is ever evolving as research explores new theories and the latest modalities. Let’s discuss the current trends in recovery and regeneration to help your child perform at their best and mitigate injury.
So, what is recovery and regeneration? Recovery is essentially a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength. It is a general term to describe the adaptations to workloads after an athlete has been exposed to training or competition. Regeneration is the actual process. The body knows two things: stimulus and response. Work/stimulus in the form of training or competition leads to a perceived stress in the body. There is a natural dip in homeostasis, which ultimately leads to adaptation. Ideally, the body will adjust or recover from the stimulus resulting in a more robust human being. There are times, however, the accumulated effects of training or competition can overwhelm the recovery systems and lead to fatigue or maladaptive syndrome. These deleterious effects typically manifest first psychologically, followed by physiologically, and then through performance. For more information on this very topic, see my previous article Understanding and Preventing Fatigue in Youth Athletes. Also important to understand, is the ability to distinguish injury from soreness when it comes to maladaptive signs to training. Again, here is a link to an article I wrote pertaining to Injury versus Normal Soreness: How to Differentiate Between the Two.
The implementation of recovery techniques cannot only prevent fatigue, but also help an athlete bounce back faster and lessen the load on their system. In other words, if we can decrease the athlete’s energy spent on recovery, they can spend it elsewhere (e.g. training or competition).
Here are the basics of post training recovery that every parent should be implementing.
Nutrition and Hydration
It is important to hydrate before, during, and after your child’s activity. The body is approximately composed of 60% water. A slight decrease in body weight, as a result of dehydration, has been shown to impair performance and recovery. While it may be challenging to govern the amount of water/sports drink your child consumes during a practice/game, be prepared for their pre and post practice/game by providing 16-20oz of water pre activity and 20-34oz of post activity. The amount will ultimately depend on your child’s height, weight, and sweat rate. Measuring your child’s weight before and after training can clue you in as to how much fluid needs to be replaced. For every pound lost, have them drink 16-20oz of water. Sports drinks include electrolytes and carbohydrates, which will provide fuel for working muscles. These drinks are recommended for games/practices lasting over an hour or high intensity practices lasting less than one hour. Unfortunately, sports drinks often contain unnecessary additives like dyes, added sugar/high fructose corn syrup, and preservatives that are counterproductive to recovery. To save money and ensure quality ingredients, homemade sports drinks are a great option. Here is a website with several tasty and healthy recipes to try.
Refueling is also crucial within one hour of activity. Consume a shake or meal with a 2:1 to 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio. Following strenuous activity, depleted glycogen stores in the muscle must be replaced in order to prepare for the next training/competition session. In addition to carbohydrates, protein, an essential building block for all tissues, must be replenished. Shakes and bars are easy to transport and can be ready in then car when you pick them up or available in their gym bag. Regarding shakes, best bet is to make your own with quality ingredients (e.g. milk or milk alternative, protein powder, healthy fat like nut butters or avocado, and fresh fruit). Ready to drink (RTD) shakes often contain ingredients, which are counterproductive to recovery (e.g. sugar, dyes, preservatives, etc.). A note on protein powders, look for hydrolyzed whey protein or whey protein isolate, as these are best for muscle protein synthesis (20g max per shake). Plant-based protein powders are also a great alternative. Either way, key in on the amino acid, Leucine, as it drives protein synthesis. Look for a large amount of leucine in the amino acid profile. Other simple options are chocolate milk or a peanut butter and jelly/banana sandwich. Again, the protein to carbohydrate ratios are within the 2:1 to 4:1 recommendation making these snacks an easy option. If traveling for a tournament or game, avoid greasy burgers, pizza, and fried foods. While these may be your child’s preference and technically do provide calories, these foods promote inflammation, can create gastric irritation, and unfortunately inhibit the recovery process.
Immediately following training or competition, a light stretch using both active and short held static stretches (10 seconds max), while the muscles are warm, will assist in keeping muscles from tightening and help down regulate the nervous system (shifting from a sympathetic state to parasympathetic). Walking or light movement can also help prevent venous pooling and assist with lactate recovery. Upon returning home, shower as soon as possible. If you have a tub, submerging in water helps improve venous return (blood going back to the heart), which also increases cardiac output without effort…..bonus! This means blood is circulated back to the heart and throughout the body faster, clearing out metabolites that naturally accumulate as a result of strenuous activity. Light static stretching may continue while in the shower or tub (if feasible). Finally, finish the bath or shower by alternating between hot (30 seconds) and cold (30 seconds) in the shower, repeating three to five times. Finish with hot to reinforce relaxation of the body and downregulation of the nervous system. If, however, your child is playing in a double header or a second match that day, finish a contrast shower with cold water. Cold temperatures facilitate an upregulated nervous system, which will keep them energized for the next game.
Adolescents who participate in mentally challenging games/competitions or psychologically demanding practices may need to address the mental stress following these events. The nutritional and physical recommendations above will assist in psychological recovery, but techniques such as a psychological debriefing (where they discuss the actions of the practice/game) can help the athlete mentally conclude the events for that day. Writing in a journal is another option for concluding the events of the day. Other relaxation techniques may include listening to calming music on the ride home, meditation, and/or bringing awareness to your breath in a comfortable position in order to shift the body to a parasympathetic state (relaxed status). A two-to-one breathing count of exhale to inhale is one of my favorites. Lying on your back with your feet elevated on a wall or chair, inhale through your nose for a count of four, and exhale for a count of eight. Elevating your feet helps venous return and the breathing helps down-regulate the nervous system promoting relaxation.
Sleep is potentially the most undervalued and mismanaged form of recovery. It’s crucial to physical and psychological recovery, but also has direct implications into the foods we crave and how we metabolize the food we eat. Therefore, nutrition is also affected by sleep. A multitude of biological processes occur when we sleep that skimping on quantity or suffering from poor sleep quality, can lead to serious recovery issues. For example, human growth hormone (HGH) is released when we sleep and is integral to proper development and maturation. Studies evaluating the effects of sleep deprivation reveal delays in visual and auditory reaction time, reduced endurance and cardiovascular performance, impairment in motor function (strength and power), increased levels of fatigue, and decreased efficiency of glucose metabolism. On the contrary, a study evaluating basketball players at Stanford University, examined sleep satiation. The researchers had the athletes sleep 10+ hours every night for 5-7 weeks. The results were faster sprint times, improved shooting accuracy, improved reaction time, reports of decreased fatigue, and improved ratings of physical and mental well-being during practice and games. For more information on sleep and recovery, the Canadian Sport for Life article, Sleep, Recovery, and Human Performance, is an excellent resource. In addition, the book, Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child, by Marc Weissbluth, MD, provides appropriate sleep times and strategies for babies and adolescents. Snooze or Lose, 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits, by Helene Emsellem, MD, is a resource directed toward teenagers.
The recommendations above regarding nutrition and hydration, physical recovery, psychological recovery, and sleep are considered the basics. While there are many fancy and sometimes expensive products on the market promising to recover faster, it’s these basic strategies that will give you/your kid(s) the biggest bang for your/their buck. I always recommend that parents do the basics well before investing time and money into more advanced techniques. These simple, yet effective recovery strategies, will decrease the stress on your child's body ensuring they are ready for their next practice or game.