Train Hard, Recover Well: Essential Strategies for Athletes

January 29, 2024 by and
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Each week on Chasing Excellence, we answer questions from our listeners across the “Five Factors of Health”– movement, nutrition, connection, recovery, and mindset.

We got a question on a recent episode about optimizing recovery from a rugby player who wants to train more between weekend games. We’ve edited the conversation for clarity and brevity.

Patrick: Mathias, who’s over 40, trains rugby twice a week for two hours, does CrossFit two times a week, and strength trains once weekly. He says after a game on the weekend, he’s sore for 2 or 3 days and is wondering how to improve his recovery so he can hit the gym more between games.

Ben: Mathias is a badass.

It sounds like he’s already doing a lot, so instead of adding more training, I’d focus on the speeding-up recovery part of his question.

Here are a couple of strategies to do that:

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  • First, it’s crucial to eat nutrient-dense, calorie-rich foods. It will hamper his recovery if he’s in a caloric deficit or consuming processed foods. So, prioritize quality nutrition and make sure to get enough of it.
  • Next, sleep. An athlete like Mathias should aim for at least eight hours of actual sleep. Keyword: actual. Not in bed for eight hours, but asleep for eight. That means being in bed for at least nine hours if not ten.

I know that sounds like a lot–it is a lot. But if he wants to fully recover to get the most out of every training session, game, and practice, then there’s no silver bullet like more sleep.

Patrick: What about movement throughout the week? You said you’d probably not add more training sessions, but is there anything he can or should be doing with the training sessions he’s doing?

Ben: Yes, during those days where he’s most sore, after the games, just keep moving. Sit on an air bike and have it move enough that it’s registering some wattage and you’re getting a light sweat. If you can’t do that, take a walk or do some yoga.

The goal is to increase blood flow to remove the waste products built up during training and competition.

Some athletes start this process immediately after their game to get a jump on recovery. Whether that’s doable or necessary for Mathias, I don’t know.

Beyond those, there are a few more areas worth paying attention to:

Some athletes find ice exposure helpful. Others go further and play with contrasting an ice bath with sauna exposure. I find I get more from the sauna than I do from the cold. Maybe that’s because I might not be as tough as somebody like Mathias… Take the might out. I’m not as tough as Matthias.

Patrick: Anything else that might fit into the Mindset category of our “Five Factors of Health”?

Ben: Yes. Lower your stress levels.

How’s your work environment? How’s your home environment?

If your life is high stress and your training is high stress, your body will just be stuck in the sympathetic nervous system, which is fight or flight.

If that happens, you’re basically shutting off the repair mechanisms in your body. You won’t recover.

If you eat clean, sleep a ton, ice and sauna, and sit on an air bike for an hour a day, but you’re in a terrible relationship and work 70 hours a week at a job you hate, you won’t reap the benefits of all that effort.

So, it all matters. There isn’t a single thing that will magically improve your recovery. It’s multifaceted, and you’ve got to mix and match as best you can to find what works and what’s sustainable.

—Ben Bergeron and Patrick Cummings co-host the Chasing Excellence podcast, which this article was adapted from.

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