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Recovery Strategies Unleashed: Maximizing Performance and Wellbeing in Football

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

In order to train and play every game at 100%, recovery is crucial. Especially in the context of a season or even a career. Recovery is multifaceted and so much more than only that ‘one hour recovery training session’ on the day after a game.



While coaches and staff members may not have control over the season’s calendar or game scheduling, they do have control over almost everything else, such as when you plan training sessions and days off.


Sports, like football, often involve one or two games per week, with varying number of days between the games. Player availability is crucial to train and play always with your strongest team. Planning can become complex but fortunately there are principles to structure a training week.


In this blog, I will describe why recovery can be the winning edge in maximizing performance and player wellbeing based on evidence, logical thinking and player needs. I will highlight the importance of recovery strategies in maximizing performance, provide practical insights, and will explain why individualization and collaboration is emphasised. Enjoy reading!



Unlocking the Potential of Recovery Strategies


The first question we can ask ourselves is why players actually have to recover. Let’s look to what is happening during a game or intensive activity: the brain becomes overloaded, muscles sustain microtraumas or damage, energy stores become depleted, and various waste products such as heat, CO2 and lactic acid, are produced.


The primary objective of recovery is to decrease the time taken to return the body to homeostasis. Extensive evidence exist for numerous interventions that enable both staff members and players to make informed decisions when incorporating recovery into their planning. Players want to get rid of their fatigue and regain freshness as quickly as possible. Optimal recovery strategies play a crucial role in

  • Regenerating muscles

  • Replenishing energy stores

  • Facilitating the removal of waste products



The first principle of Periodisation: Game – Recovery Training – Day Off


Following a game, coaches ideally schedule a recovery session on the day after (GD+1) and provide players with a day off on the second day (GD+2) following the game. It is on this second day that players often experience the greatest amount of fatigue and soreness.


This phenomenon is commonly referred to as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), characterized by muscle pain and stiffness occurring 24 to 48 hours after intensive activity. While DOMS is a natural part of the muscle adaptation process and typically resolves within a few days, it can significantly impact player performance.


This is exactly why it’s better to plan a recovery session on GD+1 and allow players a day off on GD+2. By doing so, the body is given the opportunity to repair itself, and all energy can be directed towards the recovery process. This approach facilitates that players are more refreshed and prepared for the subsequent training session. From the other side, training when the body is not fully recovered leads to lower quality training sessions, increased accumulation of fatigue, and an increased risk of injuries (Verheijen, 2014).



The Science Behind Principle 1


Recently, there was very interesting research from Martin Buchheit who examined the association between the programming of days off (such as no pitch training and days off-feet) within turnarounds of varying length and injury rate in elite football. The results showed that during 3- and 7-days turnarounds, the sequences including a recovery training on the day after the game followed by a day off were associated with 2 to 3 times lower overall non-contact injury rates than planning it the other way around.



Let’s zoom out!


Let's take a moment to zoom out and consider the larger picture. Imagine a scenario where there is a game on Sunday at 3pm. A recovery training session will be planned the following day at 11.30am and Tuesday is a day off. The training session on Wednesday at 11.30am will be the first training session in preparation for the next game.


Between the end of the game on Sunday and the training session on Wednesday, there are more than 66 hours including 3 nights and many opportunities to eat. I think it’s already clear now that the ‘one hour recovery training session’ is only 2% of this time window!


While the structured recovery training session is undoubtedly important, it is only a (small) piece of the puzzle. The remaining hours and days provide other opportunities for players to engage in various recovery activities, such as optimal sleep, proper nutrition, hydration, and other recovery strategies.



In the following section, we will have a look to the recovery pyramid that can be a fantastic tool to support doing the right things at the right moment with a player.


Image from NSCA Textbook: Essentials of Sport Science


The Recovery Pyramid


Different recovery strategies will play a crucial role at different moments. Individualise recovery as much as possible because every person is different. To guide this process, the recovery pyramid offers a framework that outlines the main recovery strategies.


Sleep is at the foundation of the recovery pyramid, followed by nutrition and hydration. These components have the potential to have the greatest impact on recovery.


In the middle section of the pyramid are other strategies such as active recovery, hydrotherapy, massage and compression. These have been the focus of less research compared to sleep and nutrition. They can also be effective and appropriate when used in a comprehensive plan.


Finally, the top of the pyramid includes strategies based on minimal or no evidence and may be considered fads that can be a ‘flavour of the month’. These strategies may have little or no evidence and their effectiveness is unknown or questionable.



Education is key for staff and players


The recovery pyramid is a great tool to provide advice and education to staff and players regarding the prioritisation of recovery strategies. For example, the base of the pyramid is the most important aspect to focus on and can have the highest impact on recovery and performance.


As a coach, it would for example not be very smart to plan an ‘early morning recovery training session’ when the night before there was a late kick-off and you had to travel back home after the game. Always embrace logical thinking through zooming out.


“Recovery is doing the right things at the right moment with the player”


Prioritise the essentials: sleep and downtime


Sleep is considered as the foundational component of the recovery pyramid due to its importance for performance, recovery and well-being. In a day, an individual should strive to allocate a significant portion of time to both quality sleep and enjoyable downtime. The objective is to optimize sleep quantity (a minimum of 8 hours of sleep) and sleep quality.


To further explore the significance of sleep, recovery, and fatigue, Prof. Shona Halson is a key reference for sleep, recovery and fatigue.


Extra: 5 tips to optimize sleep:

  1. Establish an optimal biorhythm and personalised routines that include consistent bedtimes, wake-up times, pre-sleep rituals and morning routines

  2. Create a cool, dark and quiet bedroom

  3. Minimize exposure to blue light (TV, Ipad, Phone, …) and consider using blueblocker glasses as an effective tool

  4. Invest in your mattrass, pillow, topper (and eventually a travel pillow if you’re frequently on the go)

  5. Avoid caffeine and heavy meals prior to sleep


Extra: 4 tools to relax and switch off from the ‘last game’

  1. Meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises: in this blog you can read more about the transformative power of meditation

  2. Spend time with family and friends

  3. Connect with nature

  4. Read a book or (start a) study



Nutrition


Nutrition and hydration are the next key components of recovery, especially about the quantity and timing of the nutrients. The main objectives how nutrition and hydration can support recovery are to refuel energy levels, rebuild muscle damage, rehydrate and reduce inflammation. Furthermore, nutrition plays also a key role to minimize the risk of injuries and illness. A key reference for the combination of football, periodisation and nutrition is Matt Jones.



Water immersion


Different options are available such as cold-water, contrast-water and hot-water immersion that could be beneficial for the recovery. The choice of strategy should be based on what a player is aiming to recover from and for. Going in the pool prior to bed can also help to sleep faster, deeper and longer.



Compression, active recovery and stretching


Other components of recovery in the middle section of the pyramid are compression (such as compression garments and by pneumatic compression), stretching and active recovery. Yoga is another great way to enhance the recovery process.


An active recovery, such as a warm-down after a game or intense activity, can help to enhance the removal of waste products and help increasing the blood flow to support the removal-and-supply process. Also here it’s crucial to listen to the players if they feel if it is beneficial.



Massage


Foamrollers, massage balls and massage roller sticks are great tools for self-massage for myofascial release and trigger points. Massage by a therapist can increase the blood flow and can have positive effects on how the muscles feels.



Other recovery technologies


Cryotherapy and electrical muscle stimulation devices are other available examples but with less scientific evidence to support its use. This doesn’t mean they are not effective, they are just not the most important ones to prioritise in the recovery process.



As a reminder, things to avoid

  • Creating extra damage

  • Further depletion of energy stores

  • Producing more waste products

  • Damaging muscles



On or off feet?


Each element mentioned above can be strategically be planned at different moments during the recovery process and be a crucial part in a comprehensive plan. Now, lets’ zoom in to the training session itself and consider whether it should take place on or off the pitch.


If there’s one thing that will make life easier: everything is possible! As long as you can logically explain why you do what you do! An effective collaboration between technical and medical staff is essential, as is paying attention to the feedback of the players. Teamwork makes the dream work!



(Football) recovery training


Even on GD+1, you can plan a training session on the pitch. For example, basis actions without and/or with ball, a passing exercise and eventually a position game. However, it would be very smart to prioritise an extensive approach (less actions per minute) rather than an intensive one. Avoid explosive actions such as accelerations, decelerations and changes of directions. Whether the training is a football training session or a session without ball, it is by definition ‘on feet’.


Alternatively, in certain situations, it may be advantageous to plan a recovery session "off feet." An ideal option is to do the session in a pool, as this reduces pressure on the joints, muscles, bones, and tendons. Efficient movement patterns are crucial.



But coach, …


And what with strength training and accommodating players’ desires for additional work? It’s crucial to zoom out and consider the bigger picture. Reflect on the objectives, contextualize the question within the weekly plan, taking into account the previous game as well to the upcoming game. Moreover, listen to the player and prioritise individualisation. The inter-disciplinerary team with their knowledge and expertise plays here a crucial role. Essential tools in this process are education, empathy and emotional intelligence.


Especially if you’re in your first year(s) as a staff member working at the highest level or if you have recently started working with a team or player, I recommend observing, learning about the environment, understanding the player and building relationships. Instead of immediately explaining why a player should follow your approach, focus on establishing a context and gaining a deeper understanding of their needs and aspirations.


This approach will ensure that individual needs are considered while maintaining a cohesive and collaborative training environment. In this blog post you can read my top 10 tips for during the off-season!



Individualisation is key!


As a general guideline, players who played more than 30 minutes can join the recovery training session and players who played less than 30 minutes can do a football conditioning training session. But once again, it is crucial to prioritize individualisation.


An example: some players who had limited playing time or didn't play at all may benefit more from off-feet recovery than from a training session. Remember, one size does not fit all! Tailer the strategies for every player’s needs.


Another typical example are explosive players. These type of players have more fast-twitch muscle fibers and require more recovery time! Always remember: Insufficient recovery = accumulation of fatigue = increased risk for injuries.



Exceptions on the rule


The principle ‘Game – recovery – day off’ serves as the foundation for planning the following week. However, there are circumstances where the day off can be scheduled immediately after the game, such as when a late kick-off and overnight travel are involved. The number of days between games and all other various external factors will be discussed in upcoming blog posts.


And yes, even scheduling a double day off is also possible, as long as the individual needs of players with little niggles or concerns are taken into account.


“Which recovery strategies do you have available?”

I recently discussed the importance and planning of recovery also in my latest podcast that you can listen here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-soccer-science-podcast-ep3-bart-caubergh/id1668905475?i=1000601621043


Feel free to get in touch if you like to discuss further the hot topic of recovery and if you like to propose different recovery tools that directly or indirectly can enhance recovery, performance, wellbeing and health!



References:

  • Buchheit, M. (2022). Planning the Microcycle in Elite Football: To Rest or Not to Rest?

  • French, D., Torres Ronda, L. (2021). NSCA’s Essentials of Sport Science. First Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

  • Halson, S. (2014). Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z.).

  • Halson, S., Johnston, R., Piromalli, L., Lalor, B.J., Cormack, S., Roach, G.D., Sargent, C. (2022). Sleep Regularity and Predictors of Sleep Efficiency and Sleep Duration in Elite Team Sport Athletes’. Sports Medicine.

  • Lastella, M., Gregory D. R., Halson, S., Sargent, C. (2015). Sleep/Wake Behaviours of Elite Athletes from Individual and Team Sports. European Journal of Sport Science.

  • Nedelec, M., Halson, S., Delecroix, B., Abaidia, A., Ahmaidi, S., Dupont, G. (2015). Sleep Hygiene and Recovery Strategies in Elite Soccer Players. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.).

  • Sargent, C., Lastella, M., Halson, S., Roach, G. (2021). How Much Sleep Does an Elite Athlete Need? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.

  • Sargent, Charli, and Gregory D. Roach. (2016). Sleep Duration Is Reduced in Elite Athletes Following Night-Time Competition. Chronobiology International.

  • Verheijen, R. (2014). The Original Guide to Football Periodisation. Always Play with Your Strongest Team. Part 1. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: World Football Academy BV.

  • Walsh, N. P., Halson S., et.al. (2021). Sleep and the Athlete: Narrative Review and 2021 Expert Consensus Recommendations’. British Journal of Sports Medicine.

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