Why Do Athletes Recover Faster? And What You Learn From Them.
If you think professional athletes are superhuman you are not alone. The recent 2022 Football world cup in Qatar highlighted some of the unbelievable athleticism that humans are capable of.
But what makes these professional athletes unique?
How do they manage an insane training schedule while remaining for the most part injury free?
And when they do get injured how do they return to sport so quickly?
It is true that some athletes have a significant genetic advantage that allows them to reach the pinnacle of their sports.
I am sure you have all heard of Michael Phelps( AKA the flying fish), the most decorated Olympic swimmer, who has an unusual arm span to height ratio, not to mention large hands and feet. All of which allow him to swim at speeds of up to 6MPh, while most of us mere mortals will reach 2mph if we are lucky.
Or maybe you have watched the NBA and noticed that you come nowhere close to the average height of a professional basketball player which happens to be 8 inches taller than the average man.
Perhaps less apparent are those with slight biological differences including athletes such Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt who has a usual capacity to build fast twitch muscle fibers. Or cyclist Miguel Indurain with his massive 7.8L lunge capacity, most of us are around 6L.
Clearly, there are intrinsic factors such as genetics, that influence our capacity to perform at a given sport. But do these genetic factors play a role in recovery?
It’s not hard to understand how factors such as improved oxygenation or muscle building capacity, help increase recovery from training and injury. But even with these genetic variations, athletes like Bolt, Phelps and LeBron didn’t become great without a lot of discipline, work and of course, avoiding injury.
Every athlete at the top of their game is getting the 4 key basics right, but we will get to that.
First let’s talk about what performing and your best and recovering from an injury have in common. In order to perform at your maximum potential, you need to have energy reserves to fuel muscle contraction and mental work. When you run out is when you are most vulnerable to injury, this is called fatigue. Now our high performing athletes spend years building resistance to fatigue through training allowing them to function better when tired but also train or play at a greater intensity before experiencing fatigue. But essentially, we can think of performing and injury as being on opposite ends of the same spectrum.
In order to train more frequently and intensely ( and therefore perform better) we must restore depleted energy and repair any minor damage caused by fatigue.
The four key parts of any great recovery are:
Sleep: sleep cannot be underestimated. Have you ever experienced that feeling like you slipped down the stairs? Well, this happens sometimes as we release a hormone into our nervous system to limit skeletal muscle activity. Our brain does this so our muscle tissue and nervous tissues can repair. It is the only chance our body has to do this as when we are awake, we can’t just switch off our legs or our brain ( although it sometimes feels like it). When we don’t get enough sleep our capacity to make decisions is significantly impaired meaning we are more likely to react slower to potential harm and more likely to miss calculate the action required. When training hard or recovering from injury we can require 1-2 hours more sleep per night!
Eat: a lot of us think we should diet when we are injured but actually it is the opposite. We require more energy when injured, for example a broken leg needs around 15-20% more energy just to rebuild tissue and probably a little more to use the crutches.
Reduce stress: Our nervous system processes all of our stress the same, when we are injured, our brain is busy trying to protect our injured tissue, it changes the way we make decisions, access memories and interact with the world around us. If we are more stressed our nervous system will have to split its attention resulting in poorer recovery.
Load: Nowadays total rest is not recommended unless a major, multi trauma injury or a head injury has been sustained. Even post op you are expected to be up moving within 12-24 hours. This is because loading tissues helps to guide new cells on where to go, resulting in stronger tissue and faster recovery. When injured the load must be appropriate to the level of damage and the tissue type. Therefore, proper diagnosis is key. When healthy the load needs to stimulate tissue growth through microtrauma, but not cause excessive damage.
Recovery is so important that many teams I have worked with have contracts that dictate athletes’ diets and other lifestyle factors, especially when injured. Professional athletes are so impressive because they priorities recovery, meaning they don’t lose time not being able to train. Whether you are injured or wanting to perform better, get the basics right. If you can do that you will recover faster and stronger!
By Physio Lucy Woodham