A confession. I love triathlon. For 12 years I’ve been racing in them. I’ve raced every distance from super sprint to Ironman. It’s taken me to amazing places round the world, introduced me to my husband, given me fantastic friends, helped me develop a wonderful support network of likeminded people who I love learning from and even made me change career. So I will always defend triathletes.
We can be a fickle bunch when it comes to new gear, gadgets and gimmicks. Some have been known to spend hundreds on equipment or toys which can save a few watts off their bike, or grams from their trainers. And one area which is always moving is around recovery. Which magic vegetable should we be drinking before bed? Are we supposed to be sitting in hot baths or freezing baths this month? And just how many items of fluorescent compression gear are actually necessary, if any?
So when I attended Elevate conference and found there was a session on ‘Athletic Recovery’ to highlight what the current research is telling us about which strategies actually work I was there! The session was hosted by Dr Ken van Someren, Head of R&D at GSK with talks from Dr Jessica Hill (Senior Lecturer at St Mary’s Uni), Prof Glyn Howatson, Reader Northumbria Uni) and Nick Littlehales (Sleep Coach). We learnt…
Recovery is really important
- It gives you faster and better adaptation from training which gives you better winning margins.
- But we need to be clear each time what type of exercise we are trying to recover from and adapt for that.
The focus with nutrition should be on quality and in real food
- We need to focus on quality and those products which have been through informed sport programme (i.e. tested to not contain any WADA banned products) or, even easier, are real foods so no processing required and no contamination possible.
- Functional foods have added value beyond basic nutrition and can potentially improve your health through reducing inflammation, exercise induced pain, blood pressure and by improving your cognition, vascular function and sleep quality. Important to have the right food at the right time of the right quality and over the right duration.
Always bear in mind the placebo impact
- While researchers will do all they can to remove the placebo effect some recovery interventions are very difficult to randomise or blind. There is just no way to disguise the fact someone is standing in a vat of icy water!
- There can also be a belief effect – with athletes who already believe an intervention is effective reporting more effective outcomes.
Different recovery interventions may work differently on different groups
- Highly trained athletes may respond differently than untrained members of the public.
- Strategies may work differently with people of different ages. For example anti-inflammatories can supress adaptation in the young yet in older athletes paracetamol and ibuprofen were found to help with adaptation.
How an intervention is carried out can make a massive difference to how it works
- The duration that an intervention is run for, temperatures used, quality or purity of product, used just once or multiple times or the type, length and intensity of exercise completed before the intervention can all impact on the efficacy of an intervention.
Research on specific interventions
Cryotherapy (ice baths) – the therapeutic application of cold has a number of benefits: Reduced blood flow, constriction of blood vessels, reduced tissue temperature, compression of water. What they can see so far is that you need to spend 5-10 minutes in water that is between 5-10 degrees to be effective.
Compression garments – the theory is that the muscle fibre reacts when damaged meaning there is less space for any swelling to occur. It is thought to improve blood flow, reduce DOMS and decrease muscle oscillation. The research to date finds that wearing compression does not help race performance at all. But that they do have a role in recovery when the compression garment actually fits properly. Their advice is to wear them straight after a race and sleep in them overnight.
Tart cherries – when they gave 10 athletes tart cherries and 10 athletes a placebo over a 7 day period (5 before competition and 2 afterwards) they found the athletes who had the cherry juice had reduced inflammation both immediately and over time. They suggest taking them before competition increases your anti-oxidant capacity. They also ran a cycling test, mirroring a three day stage race (in the lab) and found that the cherry juice reduced inflammation.
Blackcurrants – Worked with a group of modern pentathletes and gave them a placebo and then blackcurrant juice. They found with the blackcurrant juice they had reduced inflammation and reduced oxidative stress.
Sleep – As you can’t control how you sleep it is about what you do leading into sleep. Suggested that instead of talking about hours of sleep you have had, talked about how many cycles of 90 minutes you get, and how many cycles you need. Then you can add extra in the day if you need to. You need to prepare well to sleep so you get all levels of sleep and not just lighter levels of sleep. One key tip is to breathe through the nose so if you struggle with this look out for tools which can help.