If you’re involved in regular sporting activity, then the chances are you’ll have some awareness of the importance of rest and recovery between exertions in training and competition.
Some people think that the rest and recovery phase is all about simply doing nothing other than refraining from sport but it’s about much more than this. It’s an active process that you need to dedicate some effort to. That includes thinking about what you eat and drink, your sleeping habits, and what you do with your time.
In this article we’ll look at the things you need to do for the best rest and recovery for your sport.
Why is rest and recovery important in sports?
People often have the view that if you want to get better, you’ve got to train harder.
Sure, training hard is important, but you mustn’t overlook rest and recovery as part of the mix. Your body is only capable of so much in any one session and training 24 hours a day will obviously lead to burn-out.
Professional athletes realise this. In fact, the only way you can really perform to your best, either in training or competition, is by preparing properly for it. That’s where rest and recovery comes in. Done right, it will lead to big improvements in your game.
In fact, there are some major benefits of rest and recovery for sports:
- You give muscles the chance to heal, reducing the chance of injury.
- You can mentally recharge and take stock, ready for your next session.
- You can compete harder and more consistently because your body is recharged and ready.
- You avoid the risk of burnout and the related loss of motivation.
What is proper rest and recovery in sport?
Rest and recovery for sport can be defined as the process between periods of exertion where you allow your body to physically and mentally recover in preparation for its next exertion. It is not an entirely passive process, and can be actively managed for optimum recovery.
Rest and recovery should be something you plan. If you do this correctly, it will not only allow your muscles and connective tissue to repair, it will actually improve your fitness.
Rest and recovery: it’s about more than just doing this.
You are wasting future training sessions if previous sessions have not been recovered from. Performance will not improve if the recovery process is not respected.
So what does the recovery process consist of? Broadly there are 4 components: rest, sleep, relaxation nutrition (including hydration).
The total quality recovery (TQR) process
A useful tool exists for evaluating recovery. Developed by Kenttä & Hassmén, it’s named the TQR process, standing for ‘total quality recovery’.
The TQR recovery model highlights 4 main categories of the recovery process:
- nutrition and hydration
- sleep and rest
- relaxation and emotional support, and
- stretching and active rest.
If you can cover all those elements, you will have performed a good recovery process. It’s worth exploring the importance of each element of the recovery process in more detail.
Nutrition and Hydration
You can think of the nutrition that you provide your body as being the fuel for your engine. Note enough, or poor in quality, and you won’t be able to perform well.
A poor diet without enough calories and fluid, particularly one lacking in carbohydrates, will decrease the body’s ability to handle intense exercise. Any serious athlete, such as a footballer, will have a balanced diet which provides sufficient high-quality carbohydrates.
And it’s not just about what you consume before exercise. What you consume directly after exercise is also really important. It’s common knowledge that proteins are necessary in order to help your muscles repair, but evidence also shows that eating protein soon after exercise is more effective than leaving it a while.
Hydration is also crucial. Studies have shown that even weight loss of less than 1% through fluids causes a decrease in performance. If that’s raised to 2%, it even starts to affect decisions and reaction times. You can’t afford to get your hydration wrong.
One very simple and basic way to gauge your hydration status is to observe the colour of your urine. It might sound a bit strange, but it does give some simple indicators of whether you’re drinking enough. If your urine is a dark yellowy-brown then you are in need of hydration. On the other hand, if your urine runs almost clear then you’re nicely hydrated. Monitoring the colour both before and after sport will give you an indication of whether you’re getting it right.
Sleep and Rest
Rest means doing no strenuous physical activity, and obtaining enough sleep is a key part of this.
Not only has a lack of sleep been shown to be associated with injury risk as an adolescent athletes, but there are also implications for performance too.
One study found that with proper sleep tennis players get a 42% boost in hitting accuracy during depth drills, swimmers record a 17% improvement in reaction time off the starting block, and even a 20-30 minutes power nap can improve alertness by 100%. There are many more improvements that have also been recorded with proper sleep.
On the other hand, chronic sleep loss can lead to a 30-40% reduction in glucose metabolism and an 11% reduction in time to exhaustion. 2 days of sleep restriction can lead to a 3x increase in lapses of attention and reactivity.
As mentioned, naps during the day can help reenergise. But they should be short and sweet – otherwise they can leave you feeling groggy, and sometimes worse than not having one at all.
Relaxation and emotional support
Moses Kiptanui, the first man ever to run the 3,000 metres steeplechase in under 8 minutes, said this:
‘Recovery is as important as training. But not recovery in the sense most people understand it. If your brain is working while you are recovering, it means that you’re actually not recovering at all. Quality recovery is training.’
That quote demonstrates the state of mind that leads to deep rest. Unfortunately, daily pressures of work or study mean that it’s very difficult to spend long periods of time in a zen-like state but you should at least be trying to minimise stress which can leave you feeling drained.
In addition, the stresses of life, both athletic and otherwise, can be helped significantly if you can rely on the support of family or friends.
Developing your personal resilience, as well as using tools such as meditation, and practicing other relaxation and visualisation techniques can be extremely helpful to relax both the physical and psychological state. An open mind is definitely required with some of these methods.
Stretching and active rest
At an amateur level, stretching is a massively overlooked part of sporting preparation. Even warm-ups are not routinely performed, let alone warm downs after the event.
Not performing a warm down is a wasted chance to start the recovery process immediately. A good warm down can lead to quicker muscular relaxation after training.
Low intensity and low volume work as part of recovery is referred to as active recovery. This can take many forms, for example even a gentle cycle ride can help with the process of recovery, increasing blood flow through the muscles.
You can also put other activities into the category of useful components of active recovery, this can include:
- Foam rolling
All of these are worth consideration if you want to get the blood flowing through the muscles and aid your recovery. They are one of the key components in how to stop aching after exercise.
Top professional athletes already know the value of these activities. Ryan Giggs, for example, was still playing top-level professional football at 40 years old and attributed a large part of this amazing achievement to the fact that he practiced yoga on a regular basis, even bringing out his own DVD*.
TQR Recovery Checklist
The TQR process comes with a handy checklist where you can assess your rest and recovery on a 20-point scale. You don’t need any fancy technology to perform this, but it gives you a good guide of how well you’re doing with your rest and recovery over a period of time.
Score yourself on the following areas (as discussed above) giving yourself a maximum of 20 points per day. Over time, you should notice that when you’ve had a better recovery and scored more points, you perform more effectively in your next training session or match.
- Breakfast = 1 point (½ a point for a less than full breakfast)
- Lunch = 2 points (1 point for a less than full lunch)
- Dinner = 2 points (1 point for a less than full dinner)
- Pre-workout snack = 1 point
- Post-exercise refuelling within 60 minutes = 2 points (1 point for delaying more than 60 min)
HYDRATION (Maximum of 2 points)
- Pre-exercise urine: clear or light colour = 1 point
- Post-exercise urine: clear or light colour = 1 point
SLEEP & REST (Maximum of 4 points)
- 8 hours of restful sleep = 3 points (2 points for 7 to <8 hours, 1 point for 6-7 hours
- Nap during the day = 1 point
RELAXATION & EMOTIONAL STATUS (Maximum of 3 points)
- Fully relaxed 60 minutes post-workout or 30 minutes of feet-up relaxation post workout = 1 point
- No daily psycho-social stress = 2 points (1 point for mild stress)
COOLDOWN/STRETCHING (maximum of 3 points)
- Adequate cooldown after exercise = 2 points (give 1 point for partial cooldown)
- Stretching & foam roller for at least 10 minutes = 1 point
Fill out this guide over the course of a week to assess your recovery behaviours. The daily total reveals whether you are paying adequate attention to your physical and mental recovery needs.
Note that you don’t need to feel that you have to score 20 each day. Many professional athletes might not achieve a score of 20 each and every day. As a guide:
- 1-10 = poor
- 11-14 = good
- 15-18 = very good
- 19-20 = exceptional
Rest and recovery is something that serious athletes should focus on. The body has a natural capacity to recover, but you can improve your rate of recovery by doing certain things that we’ve covered in this article.
Rather than seeing rest and recovery as something that just happens, it should be viewed as another part of an athletes overall preparation. After all, when your training or game is over, the rest and recovery period is where you actually get fitter and stronger.
Try tracking your rest and recovery over a period of time and notice how your body responds to different levels of preparation. In the long term, this can be something that gives you the edge.
Why not share your thoughts on this topic in the comments below? What has made a difference for you? Which aspects of your routine do you swear by? How many points would you give yourself on the TQR scale?