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The Essence of Athletic Development is Recovery

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The Essence of Athletic Development is Recovery

By: Brian Schiff

The drive for athletic dominance is alive and well today. With the rapid growth and proliferation of select sports coupled with the increasing insistence from coaches to specialize at an early age, parents and athletes alike are looking to gain every edge they can. The increasing emphasis on a singular sport makes the topic of recovery even more relevant today.

It is not uncommon for me to work with 12 year old select soccer players who practice 3 consecutive days (Tuesday – Thursday) and then play 3-4 matches on Saturday and Sunday. Did I mention they train with me once per week as well? How do I train them effectively without impeding their play when it counts? The answer lies in knowing your athletes and adjusting the workout each week as needed.

I must admit that I often talk parents out of training more often with me based on their child's practice and play schedule. The reason for this is to ensure they get enough rest and recovery. Proper recovery allows for positive physical and mental training adaptations and prevents overuse injuries. Inadequate recovery always leads to declining performance over time and significantly increases the risk for musculoskeletal disorders.

So what does recovery really mean? Many coaches only think of recovery in terms of rest between practice activities. I would like to further expand upon this definition by utilizing the following classification system:

Intra-workout recovery – this refers to the period of recovery time between sets, sprints, or bouts of exercise within a training session or practice. It may further be described as the amount of relative rest for a particular muscle group or energy system within the framework of the session.

Inter-workout recovery – this refers to the type and amount of recovery time between actual workout sessions.

Inter-competition recovery – this refers to the type and amount of recovery time between competitive events.

Inter-season recovery – this refers to the type and amount of recovery time between competitive sports seasons (critical for singular sport athletes).

I like to think about all of these recovery windows when I work with athletes of any age or skill level. Managing all of these parameters will make a big difference in the final performance at crunch time. How many times have you seen the favored team play well all season long only to lose in the playoffs or championship?

I see this all too frequently locally in my community. Coaches assume more and more training will produce better results. I will give you a few real life scenarios of how inadequate recovery and overtraining lead to poor performance and injuries.

Case Study #1 – The Broken Runner 

A high school sophomore athlete I have previously worked with in therapy and performance training recently returned to see me with complaints of knee pain last month. She plays lacrosse (won a state championship as a freshman), and was playing soccer and running cross country this summer. Her exam was consistent with patella tendonitis.

Note: Females who attempt to run and play soccer at the same time typically have trouble with patello-femoral pain due to the excessive pounding and running. I am not a fan of this combination as it involves too much running volume in most cases.

Upon my advice she gave up soccer and decided to focus on running. I suggested reducing her running volume to no more than 4.5 miles in any given run and told her to try a cho-pat strap to reduce patella tendon pain. Additionally, I advised her to keep her weekly mileage at or below 25 miles.

Now, if you know anything about cross country or distance running, you know that many coaches believe you must run at least twice as long as the actual event during designated training runs. Her coach wanted runners to do one to two 7 mile runs per week. I find myself saying, "Why?" Does this make physiological sense? If I want to run 3.1 miles faster, why should a runner do 7 mile training runs? Wouldn’t it make more sense to increase speed, power, and output over this distance?

As you might guess, I received a call from her coach and I passed along my mileage recommendation. However, the athlete attempted to run a bit more in her effort to keep up with the rest. The result was more pain, another call from her mom and a return trip to the orthopedist due to increased pain and mounting frustration over her inability to finish runs without a lot of pain.

The take home message here is this: not all athletes are created equal. Despite her excellent pedigree, her body could not withstand the volume and intensity of the training. There was too little inter-workout recovery and perhaps the training prescription was off given the desired results. My advice to the athlete was to run shorter distances and increase inter-workout recovery between longer runs by doing recovery tempo runs between sessions. One cross training sessions (intervals on the bike) may have been a good choice as well.

Now, running coaches may argue that several runners are able to run 35 plus miles per week every season and never get hurt. This may be true. But, I would counter with this: should they and do they need to run that much volume to reach max running performance? My guess is that more speed training and less endurance work with added recovery may yield equal or better results without forcing some talented runners out of the sport altogether.

In this case, the soccer participation is certainly a confounding variable, but I have seen other runners in my facility (particularly females) who struggle with patello-femoral issues. In my opinion, the volume needs to be adjusted for each runner and the inter-workout and probably inter-competition recovery needs to be adjusted.

Case Study #2 – The Broken Club Soccer Player 

In this scenario, I will reveal how failed recovery not only affects an individual, but how it also impacts an entire team. One of my longstanding clients is a U13 select female soccer player. She trains with the most competitive club in my area on the best team. She has worked with me for nearly 3 years without ceasing (training 1-2 times per week based on her schedule).

Her club prides itself on tough conditioning and even two a day practices in the summer. Now let me paint the current picture for you. Her team practices Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday every week at 6:30 PM for 90 minutes. She trains with me on Tuesdays at 3:30 PM for 60 minutes. She does not play every weekend but does compete on most of them. In most cases, she plays 3-4 games per weekend.

She recently played a 4 game tournament in Cincinnati, OH on dry, hard fields (two on Saturday and two on Sunday). The previous week she of course practiced three consecutive days in the heat. I elected to do low to moderate intensity and low volume work in my session with her. She returned from the weekend with significant knee pain per her mom. Wonder why? By the way, three other girls on the same team are suffering from strains/sprains.

How can this be? This is the team to beat in her age group. They have the best athletes. Guess how they did in the tournament? Not well. And now, my athlete has a knee injury (possible meniscus tear or further patello-femoral irritation) based on exam. Could this have been prevented? Perhaps. Am I saying that too much training caused the injury? Not necessarily. But, you do wonder how a talented well trained athlete at this level has such pain after playing soccer for two days, don't you?

Personally, I do not think it is a coincidence that there are several players hurt on her team. I do think their lackluster performance is surely related to their training and recovery. There is too little inter-workout recovery, too little inter-competition recovery and too much intra-workout intensity/volume without proper intra-workout recovery. Definitely not a recipe for success.

What about the bigger picture? This athlete only plays soccer. She practices and plays year round. Her team does indoor training in the winter. Guess what they did last year?

They rented a warehouse and put down temporary carpet for three months and trained 3-4 times per week in order to get ahead of their competition. By the way, many of the girls on the team complained of knee pain during the winter. Are you surprised?

The message here is that this soccer club is certainly missing the big picture too as the inter-season recovery is lacking. Too much training on the wrong surface leads to overuse and excessive pounding on the joints. I should not see 10-13 year old female athletes complaining of such persistent knee pain.

The lack of different movements and muscle activation patterns with the year round participation is also very concerning for club soccer players. While there are no easy answers, I believe club coaches need to seek guidance on strength and conditioning principles and attempt to optimize recovery for best results.

Moving forward coaches, athletes and parents need to spend as much time examining inter-workout, inter-competition and inter-season recovery as they do intra-workout recovery. I want to reiterate that not all athletes respond to training the same way and some require additional or modified recovery. This in and of itself does not mean the athlete is inferior. Personalization of training may be necessary to prevent injuries and bring out the best performance in certain individuals.

Knowing your athletes makes all the difference in the world. Practicing the "Less is More" principle as opposed to "More is Better" will go a long way toward developing healthy happier athletes. I suggest reminding athletes about the following things to enhance recovery between workouts and competitions:

Utilize a cool down period (include light stretching) after workouts and competition

Replenish the body within 60-90 minutes after the event with a small meal or meal replacement (carbohydrates and protein)

Hydrate effectively during the day

Get enough sleep (usually between 8 – 10 hours)

Engage in fun unrelated activities (music, movies, etc) to stimulate mental balance and recovery

Seek variety within workouts

In the end, know that there is no magic or perfect training plan. The best approach involves a willingness to change and address the needs and abilities of the athletes, rather than expecting them to adjust to your planned program or past experiences. Many coaches simply carry out successful programs they experienced firsthand or ones they have read or learned about from other successful coaches. The underlying problem here is that those programs worked for a different set of athletes with a different skill set at a different point in time.

I always encourage coaches to draw fundamental guidelines from those who have been successful, while remembering to know "why" they do what they do and allow the results to speak for themselves. The results being wins vs. losses and the incidence of injuries. Performance should get better as the season progresses. So, as you move forward, pause and give special attention to how recovery impacts your program. Test and measure.

You may be surprised to learn less is more.


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About The Author:

Brian Schiff, PT, CSCS, co-owner, is a licensed physical therapist, respected author, and fitness professional. He graduated from The Ohio State University in 1996 with a Bachelor of Science degree of Physical Therapy in Allied Health Professions. Since then, he has practiced as a licensed physical therapist specializing in sports medicine. Through the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Brian became a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) in 1998. Brian is also a golf conditioning specialist and was the former strength and conditioning coach for The Columbus Crew Major League Soccer Team from 2002-2006. Currently, he serves as the clinic director for Physiotherapy Associates' outpatient orthopedic facility in New Albany, Ohio. To learn more about Brian or to contact him go to his website: www.thefitnessedge.cc

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