I don’t think that there exists a complete guide for athletes that tackles the underrated topic of “Recovery-Regeneration” strategies. In this part one of a multi-part series, I’m going to disclose all of the scientific and practical information that I know of on this topic. In short, I need to breakdown recovery training into two essential categories: Passive and Active.
Both approaches are vital and complement one another.
- Tempo Work (Sleds, running)
- Bodyweight Circuits
- Mobility Work
- Barbell Complexes
- Non-Impact Training
- Sport Specific Skill Work
- Soft tissue massage/Self-Myofascial Release
- Static Stretching
- Ice application-Cryotherapy
- Contrast Baths
- Cat Naps/Sleep
- Epsom Salt Baths
- Pre-Post Workout
MASSAGE & Self Myofascial Release (SMFR)
The topic of Massage has discussed to death, so I’m not going to bore you with much information about this recovery technique, but felt compelled to address it for the sake of completeness. Massage is used to “promote relaxation of muscles, help loosens up scar tissue, and stretch tight muscles and fasciae. ”
Moreover, massage and soft tissue work may improve the elasticity of tissues. Massage is believed to increase local blood flow and metabolic waste removal; however, there were several studies along with the words of world famous coach Christian Thibadeau that refuted this claim. The specific mechanism for why both SMFR and massage work deals with the GTO mechanoreceptor located at the musculotendinous junction. When you apply a certain degree of pressure to a specific muscle, the GTO is activated, which in turn creates what is called autogenic inhibition.
Autogenic inhibition is simply a decrease in activity of the opposing muscle spindle located within the muscle belly which stimulates contraction of the muscle. When this occurs, the muscle won’t contract, and relaxation and tissue lengthening ensues.
The word “tone” is key here. This is not to be confused with the false interpretation of the word which is associated with appearance or aesthetics, but rather the activity of a given muscle.
Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson co-authored an awesome piece awhile back which emphasized SMFR/Massage as a means of reducing the activity of the nervous system (tone) and its components. While stretching works on the actual muscles. You can attempt to stretch a muscle, but if what’s regulating the muscle (nervous system) doesn’t respond favorably then it won’t lengthen.
Promoting static stretching techniques has been hyped as much as SMFR/Massage and perhaps more. Now we will examine whether or not it helps with the recovery process. In my book, I disclosed several studies considering whether or not hamstring stretching had many benefits on hamstring health and performance. Of the near half dozen studies I found, a coupled showed it may prevent injury. Several studies I looked at showed it can obviously improve the flexibility of tissues and joint range of motion. Right now, We will take a look at whether or not it assists in better recovery of neuromuscular structures.
In one study, researchers utilized a protocol that involved 7 minutes of static stretching following a football game. Relative to cold water immersion (CWI) and active recovery methods the stretching was deemed inferior.  A similar study with basketball players identified the same outcome.  Lastly, two other reviews went on to state that stretching was not an effective recovery modality. 
However, I don’t think that there is a potential downside to stretching if you want to do it. Just make sure that you practice it a day or so prior to high-intensity efforts because I did find a study that showed it could delay performance if performed to close to training. Other methods seem to be more valuable in this arena, and I will discuss these soon.
ELECTRICAL MUSCLE STIMULATION
EMS or Electrical Muscle Stimulation is a classic therapeutic protocol that assists in several important physiological processes that positively impact recovery from high-intensity athletic based training.
EMS works by transmitting a selected electrical impulse that bypasses the CNS delivered to a target muscle. The unique contraction signal sent from the EMS device is nice because it doesn’t affect the CNS or contribute to the fatigue of this system that we are always trying to manage with our athletes.
EMS can help with muscular re-education, atrophy reduction, pain management, edema or swelling, and more. Awhile back I located a solid review of the modality as it pertains to recovery, which shared about a dozen studies, but I can’t find it.
I do vividly recall though, that the primary consensus and benefit of EMS with recovery was increased blood flow. The lymphatic system lacks a central pump, so the contraction generated with EMS is one way to get things moving along in the bloodstream so we may recover faster.
As far as prescribing EMS with your athletes, I would recommend that you read this awesome article complements of Chad Smith over at Juggernaut Training Systems. Chad discusses EMS in its entirety and includes a basic outline on how to manage its use during the training week. Here is a direct link to the article:
In part #2 of this series, I will discuss the remaining passive recovery strategies along with plenty of research and quality information.
#1 – Kendall, F. Muscles Testing and Function with Posture and Pain. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2005. Print.
#2 – Kinugasa, T., and A.E. Kilding (2009). A comparison of post-match recovery strategies in youth soccer players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 23: 1402-1407.
#3 – Montgomery, P.G. (2008). The effect of recovery strategies on physical performance and cumulative fatigue in competitive basketball. Journal of Sports Science. 26: 1135-1145.
#4 – Barnett, A. (2006). Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes: does it help? Sports Medicine. 36: 781-796.
#5 – Vaile, J. (2010). Recovery Review: Science vs. Practice. J. Aust. Strength and Conditioning. 2: 5-11.