You may have seen footage during the sports reports of athletes wearing compression garments, sipping on sports drinks or swimming in cold conditions. It is common routine for athletes to utilise recovery methods to assist with the high demand of physical activity, whilst minimising muscle soreness and gaining the most benefit out of each training session. Several products have failed to live up to the benefits they claim, lacking in evidence and leaving a significant financial burden. So, what does the evidence tell us about basic recovery aids?

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) reviewed five of the most common recovery aids: compression, massage, caloric replacement and, cold and heat.

Research has indicated that compression garments are beneficial as a recovery aid. This form of therapy decreases delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and improves performance on distance running, cycling power, muscular strength and power, and reduces the risk levels of muscle injury.

Massage is the most commonly used recovery aid for athletes across all sports and levels of competition. It may delay the time to DOMS, however it can briefly decrease muscular strength shortly after treatment. The foam roller technique is used to provide controlled pressure to muscles, which may also decrease DOMS and improve athletic performance.

Calorie Replacement
To improve muscle glycogen (carbohydrates) replenishment and muscle repair and growth, it is necessary to eat a normal healthy diet when exercise sessions are at least 24 hours apart. Athletes who train or compete more frequently, can improve muscle glycogen replenishment by consuming foods with higher glycaemic index and using earlier carbohydrate replacement. Improving muscle recovery can be done by protein supplementation and protein-carbohydrate recovery aids. The Position Statement on Nutrition & Athletic Performance by the ACSM encourages carbohydrate replacement within 30 minutes of post-exercise with 1 to 1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight at 2-hour intervals up to 6 hours.

Cold therapy is believed to work by influencing inflammation, blood flow, nutrient transport, nerve conduction velocity and pain perception. The majority of literature on cold therapy as a recovery tool involves cold water immersion (CWI). During repeated bouts of endurance exercise in the heat, CWI helps maintain low body temperature and improve performance. There are small benefits like the reduction of DOMS as well as improvements in athletic performance such as a quicker recovery of sprint speed. Ice should be applied for no longer than necessary (5-15 minutes) and monitored during treatment.

Heat is suggested to decrease muscle soreness by increasing blood flow to treated areas, which improves oxygen uptake and flushing out exercise-related waste products from recovering muscles. There is no strong evidence to support the benefits of the application of heat alone, as most studies have used a blend of heat and cold treatments (sauna/spa, cold water therapies). However, it should be mentioned that different forms of heat treatments (hot packs) are regularly used for treatment of muscle stiffness and soreness.

Each form of recovery aid has its benefits for specific athletes in their chosen athletic scenario. It is important to understand the benefits based on evidence-based research rather than what TV, billboards or social media promote. This understanding can help prepare both athletes and coaches to be effective in their approach to using recovery methods, which will contribute to the overall performance during training sessions and competitions. If I was to give advice to a young athlete, it would be to eat well, stay hydrated and get plenty of rest.

~ Lindsay Trigar
Lindsay Trigar Physiotherapy