A carefully constructed training plan, nutrition strategy, dedication and discipline are the building blocks of any fitness or athletic journey. But there are two other things that play an equally important role in this but are often overlooked: rest and recovery. This is down to a greed to improve faster, which often means pushing our bodies to the limit, without giving it time to recover. While you get most of your rest in the form of sleep, which is necessary for the body to recharge and reset itself, other recovery interventions are required at regular intervals to keep muscles and joints stress-free and fresh, say fitness trainers and medical experts.
If you participate in any kind of fitness activity or sport regularly, paying a visit to a physiotherapist or a sports medicine centre for some recovery therapy is a good idea. There are multiple recovery therapies including deep tissue massage, hydrotherapy, compression and stretching, says Dr. Amite Pankaj Aggarwal, director and head of the department of orthopaedics, Fortis Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, in New Delhi. “Recovery therapies keep our joints mobile and lubricated, prevent stiffness and inflammation in our joints and help the body prepare for the next workout. They also remove waste produced by our bodies from our muscles and tissues and ease the stress in our body's tissues and joints,” he says. There are other therapies such as dry needling, electrotherapy and ultrasound as well, if you need targeted treatment for soreness, stiffness or minor injury.
When it comes to choosing a recovery regimen, people have to try different approaches to identify the one that works best for them and their body. “Sometimes, a combination of recovery techniques delivers the best results, so trial and error is often necessary,” suggests Aggarwal.
Sports massage: Sports massage refers to a number of massage techniques, including deep tissue massage, that can be used to relieve muscle stiffness, prevent delayed onset muscle stiffness (DOMS), improve muscle and ligament healing, reduce swelling and improve the range of motion in their joints. Additionally, a sports massage can have a positive psychological effect by helping people put aside post-performance anxiety and experience a sense of calm, says Aggarwal.
AK Abhinav, coach and founder of Bengaluru’s Namma X-Fit, says deep tissue and sports massages should ideally be done once a month at least for recreational athletes. “It helps realign fascia and muscle tissues. It can also be used on a specific body segment where pain is identified,” he adds. However, Aggarwal says that a massage, by itself, does not appear to significantly improve athletic performance but neither does it detract from it. Yet other benefits of a massage can put athletes in a better physical and psychological shape to succeed in their athletic endeavours, he says.
Hydrotherapy: In hydrotherapy, the person is immersed in water post-workout or post-game as a way of speeding up the healing and restoration in their muscles. There are three primary forms of hydrotherapy: cold water immersion, hot water immersion and contrast water therapy, where the person is alternately immersed in hot and cold water.
Hydrotherapy can be an effective recovery technique for high performance athletes, particularly when contrast water therapy is used, says Aggarwal. Contrast water therapy should be done once a week for recreational athletes while professional athletes do it two to three times a week, says Abhinav. “It drives more deoxygenated blood to the heart for purification, which enhances recovery. It also reduces the need to do static stretching to try and optimise muscle length. Muscular length tends to shorten post training and a contrast bath brings it back to optimal length without hindering beneficial muscular adaptations that take place post-exercise,” Abhinav adds. Some studies have shown improved performance after hydrotherapy, indicating improved recovery for each athlete.
Compression: Compression recovery refers to the use of compression garments that apply pressure on the limbs. Compression wear prevents swelling, regulates blood flow, and stabilises muscles. Studies have shown that compression clothing can provide a number of benefits to performance athletes, including reduced DOMS, improved athletic performance and improved perception of comfort, says Aggarwal.
Stretching: Stretching is the most common recovery technique for athletes of all abilities. This is why no trainer will let you leave the gym without a proper post-training stretch. Typically, recovery stretching involves lengthening select muscles for short periods of time after an athletic performance, with the entire process lasting about 10 minutes. While more popular than cold water immersion for recovery, stretching does not appear to have as much impact on an athlete's perception of their recovery or on the actual performance itself, says Aggarwal.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.