The Key to Recovery? Take Care of Your Brain

Many tools and techniques promise recovery benefits. But the science suggests that the fundamentals—sleep and nutrition to fuel the brain—may be the best place to invest.

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When I was younger, my favorite time of day was the hour after my long rides. I’d come home, mix a giant smoothie, watch an episode of a TV show I’d never admit I owned, and relax with a good stretch.

The year I began to manage a team while still racing, a few things had to give; that hour routine was one of them. I still stretched, but I did it while also doing other things. It wasn’t long before I felt the repercussions: My calves started to cramp, and I struggled to push myself on rides. It became an issue that dogged my entire season.

It was only when I found time to do a dedicated recovery routine again that the issues went away.

The science of recovery

As athletes, we have a diverse set of tools and techniques to speed our recovery and aid our training adaptations. These commonly include stretching, massage, foam rolling, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), compression clothing, ice baths, heat, and calorie replacement—just to name a few.

Among the various methods, which are the best? Where should we invest our time? And what does the science suggest is the most effective?

Many recent scientific reviews, including a 2015 analysis led by Dr. Andrew Peterson, the director of sports medicine at the University of Iowa, have found little evidence to suggest many of these techniques offer benefits. In some cases, including the practice of icing, heat application, and NSAIDs, they may hurt performance.

So, why do athletes invest so much time and money into them? According to Dr. Peterson, the answer is simple: “People want to maximize everything.”

Many athletes are restless after they workout; they often feel they need to do something in order to recover. Sometimes, however, the best thing to do is to do nothing. In other words, get out of the way of what your body has evolved to do.

In his review, Dr. Peterson analyzed most of the currently popular recovery tools and modalities and found limited benefits. Furthermore, due to funding conflicts and publication bias, he suggests the research may even exaggerate the benefits. (Many negative studies never get published; if they did, the literature would suggest even less effect.)

Still, Peterson recognizes these methods may produce small incremental gains. “They may not be clinically meaningful for a lot of people, but for a grand tour cyclist, they might make a difference,” he said.

Part of the problem is that there isn’t much financial investment or incentive in recovery research to tease out the different effects.

Issues with recovery research

The best measure of an athlete’s state of recovery is an athlete’s performance level. According to Peterson, however, without expensive population-based studies, “improvements in performance are either so subtle that you can’t detect them or they’re frankly not there.”

Instead, researchers have used surrogate markers of recovery to reach their conclusions. The two most common surrogates—delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and lactate clearance—make poor markers.

Lactate has a half-life of 9.5 minutes and returns naturally to baseline levels within 90 minutes, with or without recovery aids.

DOMS, while easy to produce in a research setting, is generally only caused by doing unfamiliar eccentric exercises—slow, lengthening muscle contractions that are for a specific muscle. (Remember how sore you were the day after your gym teacher made you do all those strange calisthenics in gym class?)

However, a single session of heavily eccentric exercise will prevent future DOMS from occurring after that same exercise, for up to six months.

Furthermore, since cycling is not an eccentric exercise, “DOMS doesn’t really happen in cycling,” says Dr. Ben Rattray of the University of Canberra Research Institute for Sport and Exercise. “So, why treat it?”

Just as interestingly, a 2014 review of the research on DOMS and recovery out of the Queensland University of Technology found that the recovery rate of DOMS and the recovery rate of performance didn’t match up in multiple studies. That suggests that DOMS and performance may not be directly linked.

Is recovery all in your brain?

What has matched up in studies of performance recovery, in cycling and other endurance sports, was EMG activity of the brain.

The importance of the brain to recovery is the focus of Rattray’s research. “I don’t know if we’re going the wrong direction,” he says about current recovery techniques. “I just think maybe we haven’t thought about all the options.”

Most of the studies on recovery have one thing in common—they focus on the periphery, our muscles. But Rattray points out that we’ve known since the 19th century that the central nervous system plays a key role in fatigue.

“You always have some degree of neural-physiologic fatigue,” agrees Peterson. “Your brain just doesn’t control your muscles as well when you’re fatigued.”

Most athletes are now familiar with the central governor theory of fatigue, which states that the sensation of fatigue during a race or hard ride may actually reside in the brain. It’s the brain telling us we need to slow down before we do damage.

What Rattray is discovering is that this central governor may also play a role in recovery. This may be part of the reason athletes continue to use recovery tools that show no benefits for muscle recovery. There may be mental gains.

Rattray’s research has found a powerful placebo effect from recovery strategies. Another cross-institute study from 2013 found that cold-water immersion restored β activity in the brain that had been associated with fatigue while cycling in the heat.

One widely accepted recovery technique is the restoration of muscle glycogen by consuming simple carbohydrates soon after exercise or competition.

“For me a sport like cycling is about restoring energy,” Rattray says. “But what we’ve probably neglected is that the brain uses fuel as well.”

Staying motivated is a high-fuel task for the brain, and mental fatigue has been shown to reduce time to exhaustion on the bike. In other words, mental fatigue can lead to powerful sensations of physical fatigue. When you use up the fuel that powers your brain, says Rattray, “you lose your ability to drive yourself, and you’re going to give up.”

Athletes need to replace that fuel after a hard effort. In part, that replenishment is simply about consuming food and nutrients. Additionally, it’s about allowing the brain to rest, according to Rattray.

Ironically, the latest findings in recovery science may take us back to the oldest techniques.

“I think a lot of real recovery is about what you eat every day, and the sleep that you’re getting,” Peterson says.

You can try compression tights and cold-water immersion—or you can set aside a complex recovery process that may drive up anxiety, and instead stick to the fundamentals. Peterson puts it even more succinctly: “You’re better off taking a nap.”

Mindful recovery

Many athletes have developed a recovery routine through trial and error, rather than by what the science suggests they should do. If you’re looking for some guidance to develop yours, here’s what our experts have to say:

Let the body do its thing

Evolution has created some very sophisticated recovery techniques, according to Peterson. It’s pretty good at repairing itself. All you need to do is get out of the way.

Train the brain

Just like dedicated training on the bike improves our endurance, Rattray believes we can build our brain’s mental resilience. “Even engaging in cognitive activities while doing your physical training is a strategy that seems to have quite large positive effects.” When you’re riding the trainer in the winter, try using some of the brain training apps.

Shut the brain off and disconnect

One of the easiest recovery techniques, at least in theory, is to disconnect from technology or stimulus. Instead, connect with people and work on things that make you happy.

From a scientific standpoint, Rattray notes that this disconnection helps restore the brain’s fuel. “Don’t engage in mentally exhausting activity—emotion is particularly draining,” he says. Things like seeing a movie, hanging out with friends, or lying down and listening to music all slow the mind down and aid recovery.

Relax and sleep

Taking a 20-minute nap after a ride could very well be your new favorite recovery. Our brains restore their fuel during sleep, according to Rattray, and our muscles do most of their repair at the same time, according to Peterson. “A recovering athlete really can’t get too much sleep,” he says.

Refuel

Restoring both muscle and brain glycogen is one of the most effective recovery strategies you can employ. Taking in about 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight immediately after exercise is recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. And the sooner the better. “The earlier you get some carbohydrates on board, the more quickly you’ll begin to rebuild your glycogen stores,” Peterson says.

He also recommends a little bit of protein, which can reduce brain fatigue. The rest of the day, he recommends you just eat normal whole foods. It’s also important to point out that muscle glycogen is fully replenished after 24 hours even with no special recovery techniques. You only need to focus on it if you’re racing later that day or you’re at a stage race.

Benefits of other recovery tools

As far as the other recovery modalities go, they are, at best, “small incremental gains” according to Peterson. In his review, he concluded that several of the tools have unique situational benefits.

Compression

“I think compression garments after exercise make a lot of sense,” Peterson says. There is increasing evidence that compression improves performance in strength and endurance sports, though subjects had to wear the clothing for 24 hours or longer. “Fortunately, a cheap pair of compression tights seems to be just as good as the $5,000 sequential compression device.”

Cold therapy

Cold-water immersion and ice vests show limited benefits. The one exception is when they are used in the heat, “when they clearly improve your performance on subsequent tasks,” Peterson says. Using an ice vest before a competition that takes place in the heat can cool core temperature.

NSAIDs

Recent research has shown that the immune system is heavily involved in how muscles repair and adapt after a hard workout. Inflammation is needed to aid the repair process. NSAIDs block that inflammation and can hamper both recovery and training gains.

Heat

“Heat is the obvious one that people make huge mistakes with,” Peterson says. Like NSAIDs, heat may interfere with the body’s natural repair mechanisms. And while some researchers feel their analgesic properties may be beneficial, no one feels they aid recovery.

Cooldown

A cooldown after a hard effort is a no brainer for almost all cyclists. So you may find it surprising that so far no recovery benefits have been found from cool-down rides, and they may in fact delay glycogen resynthesis.

The fundamentals

After reviewing the various strategies, Peterson has a pretty simple recommendation: “Get good sleep. Compression seems to make a difference. And what you do with your nutrition on a daily basis is going to matter.”

References

  • Barnett, A. (2006). Using Recovery Modalities between Training Sessions in Elite Athletes. Sports Medicine, 36(9), 781–796. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200636090-00005
  • Kraemer, W. J., Bush, J. A., Wickham, R. B., Denegar, C. R., Gómez, A. L., Gotshalk, L. A., … Sebastianelli, W. J. (2001). Influence of Compression Therapy on Symptoms Following Soft Tissue Injury from Maximal Eccentric Exercise. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 31(6), 282–290. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.2001.31.6.282
  • MacDonald, G. Z., Button, D. C., Drinkwater, E. J., & Behm, D. G. (2014). Foam Rolling as a Recovery Tool after an Intense Bout of Physical Activity. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 46(1), 131–142. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0b013e3182a123db
  • Minett, G. M., & Duffield, R. (2014). Is recovery driven by central or peripheral factors? A role for the brain in recovery following intermittent-sprint exercise. Frontiers in Physiology, 5, 24. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2014.00024
  • Peake, J. M., Neubauer, O., Gatta, P. A. D., & Nosaka, K. (2017). Muscle damage and inflammation during recovery from exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 122(3), 559–570. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.00971.2016
  • Peterson, A. R., Smoot, M. K., Erickson, J. L., Mathiasen, R. E., Kregel, K. C., & Hall, M. (2015). Basic recovery aids: what’s the evidence? Current Sports Medicine Reports, 14(3), 227–34. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1249/jsr.0000000000000159
  • Rattray, B., Argus, C., Martin, K., Northey, J., & Driller, M. (2015). Is it time to turn our attention toward central mechanisms for post-exertional recovery strategies and performance? Frontiers in Physiology, 6, 79. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2015.00079
  • Saw, A. E., Main, L. C., & Gastin, P. B. (2016). Monitoring the athlete training response: subjective self-reported measures trump commonly used objective measures: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(5), 281. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2015-094758
  • Tejero-Fernández, V., Membrilla-Mesa, M., Galiano-Castillo, N., & Arroyo-Morales, M. (2015). Immunological effects of massage after exercise: A systematic review. Physical Therapy in Sport, 16(2), 187–192. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2014.07.001
  • Tiidus, P. M. (2015). Alternative treatments for muscle injury: massage, cryotherapy, and hyperbaric oxygen. Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, 8(2), 162–7. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s12178-015-9261-3
  • Torres, R., Ribeiro, F., Duarte, J. A., & Cabri, J. M. H. (2012). Evidence of the physiotherapeutic interventions used currently after exercise-induced muscle damage: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Physical Therapy in Sport, 13(2), 101–114. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ptsp.2011.07.005

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