Why Don’t Athletes Recover?
These factors can get in the way of how well you’re recovering and performing.
Most of us now understand that as an athlete, what you’re doing to recover is just as important as your training. Recovery is when your body heals, repairs, strengthens and adapts to the stresses being asked of it. Here at JOGA, we’re in the business of recovery. We’re focused on helping athletes hack the subsystems of the body to recover more efficiently so that they can optimize performance. We primarily address recovery from a movement, breath, and nervous system point of view; however, recovery is not just something that happens in a gym, it is also influenced by your lifestyle, and despite popular belief, athletes tend to be unhealthy.
Sports are not about health, they’re about performance. Athletes work in physically and mentally demanding environments that ask a lot from their bodies. Athletes need to be healthy to perform at a high level, but unfortunately, many athletes haven’t been taught the proper lifestyle habits that will help them sustain good health amidst the severe demands of their jobs. These are habits like eating well, sleeping well, and supporting mental health.
In a 3 part Instagram live series looking at how athletes recover and train, JOGA founder Jana Webb talked with Roland Pankewich from Designs For Sports specifically about the role nutrition plays in an athlete’s life and career. In this series, they looked at the importance of stress management, sleep, and performance habits in an athlete’s overall health. Roland Pankewich is the creator of the Applied Nutrition for Strength Coaches and Trainers course and expertly shared with us how nutrition can both hinder these lifestyle considerations, as well as be used to support them. Below, we will summarize the main takeaways from the series and the best practices you should be thinking about when it comes to using nutrition to aid with stress, sleep, and performance to ensure you are recovering, playing, and feeling your best.
We often only think of stress as something that affects us psychologically, but stress actually also wreaks havoc on the physical body. When you’re stressed, the body will trigger a sympathetic nervous system response, forcing you into survival mode. Physically, this manifests as symptoms like an accelerated heart rate, increased blood pressure, and inhibited digestive activity. When you’re chronically in this state, which many athletes are because of the nature of the job, nearly every system in the body is disrupted and you’ll begin to experience consistent inflammation, leaky gut, and even a weakened immune system, which just leads to more stress.
In JOGA, we give athletes breathing exercises and relaxation tools they can use to combat this sympathetic nerve mayhem. However, to completely put an end to this self-perpetuating cycle, you need to address its cause – lifestyle. Not only are athletes under a lot of stress because of pressure and expectation, but they are also constantly on the go. When we look at how this affects eating habits, we see many athletes who regularly eat fast food or eat in a distracted rush. Therefore, your digestive system is both being compromised because of the sympathetic nervous system response being brought about by stress, as well as how you’re eating and what you’re eating.
Using nutrition to combat stress means being conscious of how the food you’re eating is feeding your body’s stress response. Stress puts you in depletion mode, so to counteract this, you’re going to want to make sure you’re getting in more vitamins and minerals through your diet. Drinking enough water, improving the quality of the food you’re eating, and diversifying your food choices with colourful vegetables are also important steps to take to minimize stress and its effects on the body. If you are experiencing digestive issues related to stress, take note of your symptoms, such as whether you’re experiencing heartburn, bloating, or constipation, and consider taking probiotics or digestive enzymes to help with this.
As we’ve already mentioned, an athlete’s job can dramatically impact everyday habits, including sleep. Athletes are constantly traveling across time zones and often don’t know how to unwind after a game, and as we’re all aware, lack of sleep eventually starts hindering how well we can operate and perform. One of the main factors influencing sleep is circadian rhythm because we are governed by light. Insomnia, trouble falling asleep, or not getting restful sleep are all so common today because our sleep cycles have been disrupted by our external environments. When we stay up late working or are on our phones and watching TV late into the night, we send the message to our bodies that it is still daytime because blue light energizes and awakens us.
Many people like to use coffee to feel awake when they don’t get enough sleep, but the problem with this is coffee is an artificial enhancement that stays in the system for a long time. Caffeine may stimulate us, but it doesn’t actually give us energy, rather, it just masks the feelings of fatigue. Because of this, coffee can also prompt a stress response in the body.
Another poor nutrition habit people have that interrupts sleep is eating too late. Eating right before bed is not ideal because when we’re sleeping, our digestive system isn’t as active as when we’re awake. This can lead to acid reflux and indigestion, worsening your quality of sleep. If you are going to eat close to your sleep time, make sure you’re avoiding foods that are going to elevate blood sugar and slow digestion.
To help your body calm down and fall into a restful, rejuvenating sleep, there are five sleep hygiene practices you should be following:
- Finish eating 2-3 hours before sleep
- Limit coffee and alcohol intake before bed (one glass of wine with dinner may be okay if it helps wind you down, but any more can interfere with your sleep)
- Limit exposure to artificial light right before bed (you can invest in blue light glasses or use the night time feature on your phone to do this)
- Make sure you’re sleeping in a completely dark room
- Consider taking supplements that help with sleep, like magnesium or melatonin
How intensely and often you’re training and performing, will also play a part in how well you’re able to recover, and ultimately how healthy you are overall. The biggest problem we see with athletes when it comes to this is overtraining. Overtraining fatigues the body and mind and puts you in this sympathetic, fight or flight, the nervous response we’ve been talking about. So how can you avoid this and help support your body during training and off days? By adjusting your lifestyle and eating habits to suit your training and recovery schedule! Ultimately, you need to look at your entire diet and habits, not just the ones you have directly before and after a game.
When you’re in training mode and ramped up, you should be increasing your intake of macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals to fuel the activities you’re doing. How much and what you’re eating will also depend on your age, body, and kinetic environment. It’s also important to dispel the myth that you need to load up on carbs with a big bowl of pasta before a game. Yes, whatever you eat your body is going to turn into energy, but there is a difference between calories and nutrition. When you’re physically exerting yourself, you’re burning more energy reserves, so want to up your carbohydrate and protein intake. However, simple carbs raise your blood sugar and result in a spike then crash. Instead, you want to be eating nutrient-rich foods that will raise and sustain your blood sugar while you’re training and playing.
When it comes to post-training nutrition, it’s best to wait 30 – 60 minutes after a workout before eating. This is because right after a workout, you’re still going to be in a sympathetic state, so your digestion is still going to be inhibited. When you’re not training, you should be in a rest and digest state. You don’t want to do or eat anything that may compromise performance when game day comes around. You may also want to use supplementation, like L-Glutamine, to help facilitate recovery.