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Introduction

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Recovery underway—ice bath filling, beer in hand.

Tweet by @jmsenger (John Senger)

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In recent years, there has been an increased emphasis on recovery following bouts of heavy training or competition, and the possible means by which recovery can be enhanced. There are a number of situations where enhancing recovery can be helpful for the sportsperson.

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The athlete may have to perform again in a few hours’ time, such as running a heat of an event in the morning and then the final later in the day. Occasionally in tournaments, individuals or teams have to compete twice in one day. A tennis player may have to play a singles match and then a doubles match a few hours later, or a team sport athlete may have a number of games in a day as part of a weekend round robin tournament. Even though playing another high-intensity competition the same day is the exception rather than the rule, it is not uncommon to have to play on consecutive days or at least two or three times a week. Full recovery is obviously very important.

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Even for those playing weekly, it is important to be fully recovered as quickly as possible, to enable the athlete to train effectively during the week. In all these situations, recovery from exhaustive activity is important, and coaches and conditioning staff have, in recent times, implemented post-game programs to enhance recovery.

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Overall, the aim is to maximize performance and minimize potential for injury at the next event. The specific objectives in the recovery process are:

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  • restoration of function

  • neuromuscular recovery

  • tissue repair

  • resolution of muscle soreness

  • psychological recovery.

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Unfortunately, there is limited research into the various recovery methods. Current research has a number of limitations:

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  • poor study design

    • often not randomized

    • lacks appropriate control populations

  • small numbers

    • increased likelihood of chance findings

    • difficulty finding statistical benefit

    • confusing statistical and clinical benefits

  • optimum regimen unknown for most techniques

  • different sports having different requirements

  • underlying mechanisms unclear/speculative

  • indirect outcome measures.

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A number of methods are commonly used to hasten the recovery process. These include:

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  • warm-down (active recovery)

  • cold water immersion (ice baths)

  • massage

  • compression garments

  • lifestyle factors

  • nutrition

  • psychology.

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Warm-down or active recovery

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Most serious sportspeople perform a warm-down or active recovery following the conclusion of intense exercise. The length of warm-down generally varies with the level of the participant’s activity, but ranges from 5 to 15 minutes. Running athletes generally perform a walk or walk/jog regime, while swimmers will usually use their customary stroke but at a slow pace. This is usually followed by stretching of the muscles used in training or competition.

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The evidence for the effectiveness of active recovery is conflicting, with studies showing positive effects,1, 2 no change,3...

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