The importance of recovery

It is well understood that recovery forms an integral part of the whole training process. High volumes of training with insufficient recovery lead to symptoms of fatigue with an accompanying high risk of injury.

Recovery after exercise can be passive or active. Passive recovery allows the body to recuperate without any the intervention. Active recovery, which can take many forms, attempts to accelerate the rate of recovery so that the player is better prepared for the next training session.  

A review of the literature on the popular strategies which are used to accelerate recovery in rugby (cryotherapy, massage, stretching, compression garments, active recovery, nutrition, sleep and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) shows that there is not overwhelming evidence supporting any of these techniques.

This can be attributed to the fact that many of the studies are laboratory-based and the protocols which are used to simulate training or competition may lack specificity.

Another potential problem is that the markers which are used to define the state of recovery are indirect and also lack specificity. Despite the lack of scientific support, there is fairly strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that “something is better than nothing”.

Furthermore, practical experience shows that once a recovery strategy is designed, it should become ritualistic and habitual for the players within the team. They need to be educated about the importance of recovery and be expected to take some responsibility for their own recovery. With this as background, some practical examples of various strategies are provided.

The physiology of recovery

During exercise the metabolic rate increases. This is measured as increased oxygen consumption.

Immediately after exercise the oxygen consumption declines. First there is a rapid decline, which lasts about five minutes, followed by a slower decline lasting for up to an hour. Circulating lactate, which may increase up to 10-fold during a rugby match, takes about 60 minutes to return to pre-exercise concentrations.

During a rugby match, forwards lose between 1 and 4kg and backline players lose about 0.8 kg of body mass. This is a transient change in body mass with a return to pre-match weight soon after the game, providing there is adequate fluid ingestion.

Muscle glycogen concentrations decrease with exercise. The concentrations continue to decrease even after exercise has ended, particularly when muscle damage occurs. Glycogen levels return to their prematch level within 24 hours providing there is no muscle damage. In the presence of muscle damage, glycogen restoration takes about 24 hours longer.

The only study that has been done on muscle glycogen depletion in rugby players showed that a rugby match did not cause significant depletion of muscle glycogen. However, studies done on soccer players showed that glycogen stores were reduced to near depletion at the end of a soccer game.

The goal of recovery is to restore cellular function to pre-exercise levels, without bypassing any of the biological steps that are important for complete regeneration. By excluding or blocking these biological factors, there is a risk of compromising regeneration and the restoration of the cellular function.

Recovery after exercise does not only involve muscle tissue. Following high-intensity exercise, there are aspects of elevated metabolism that have to recover.

Recovery after exercise is also dependent on the physical demands of the bout of exercise. It is unrealistic to expect all players to be affected similarly by a match.

Recovery based on position played

There are distinct differences in the physiological demands of playing rugby according to the playing positions.

Forwards spend more time competing for the ball and are involved in physical contact, whereas the backs spend more time running.

A study on Vodacom Cup players show that there were 382 (range 306 – 535) impact contacts per match, with the forwards being involved in 68% of these (257 per match (range 199 – 389), while the backline players were involved in 125 (range 93 - 148) impact contacts per match (80).

The evidence suggesting that rugby forwards have more physical demands placed on them compared to the backline players is supported by a study which showed that forwards had a marker of muscle damage (interstitial creatine kinase concentration) which was nearly threefold higher compared to the backline players (69).

Studies have also shown, based on heart rate that the backs do less work during a match than the forwards.

About 95% of the bouts of activity during a rugby match last less than 30 seconds. The rest periods in between these bouts are generally greater than the preceding bout of exercise.

Muscle pain is a poor marker of the state of recovery after exercise that causes muscle damage).

Other indirect markers of muscle damage such as circulating creatine kinase and inflammation are also not necessarily related to the amount of muscle damage. Some studies, which have examined the efficacy of modalities to accelerate recovery, have used pain and indirect markers of muscle damage as their main outcome measures. These studies may have come to the wrong conclusions because of the poor relationships between the “state of the muscle” and markers of muscle damage.

In summary, it may be concluded that rugby players have varying degrees of muscle damage after training and matches, ranging from very marginal (backline players) to the more serious damage (loose forwards).  

There will be accompanying symptoms, such as inflammation and impaired muscle function, with the more serious muscle damage. In most cases, players will have lost intracellular fluid and muscle glycogen after a match. 

Recovery can be defined in many different ways, but from the perspective of a rugby player, recovery should be defined as the point at which the player is able to train without constraints of sore muscles or an increased risk of injury.  

This physiological definition does not exclude the fact that there are cognitive processes which also need to recover following a stressful match or period of travelling across time zones, which interferes in sleep patterns.  

Optimal recovery requires a multidimensional approach that addresses all aspects of the rugby player’s lifestyle, such as sleep, nutrition, overall stress exposure and physiological recovery.  

This is an extract of Recovery techniques and practical guidelines by SA Rugby. For the full article click here.

 Source: SA Rugby: Recovery techniques and practical guidelines by Mike I. Lambert and David Van Wyk; MRC/UCT Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine.

(Health24, August 2011)

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