Dave Shillington chatted to Dr Peter Fowler about athletic recovery and the factors that help speed up sports recovery. Dr Fowler is a qualified sports scientist working out of the Sports Hub in Kawana on the Sunshine Coast. Dr Fowler is a recovery expert specialising in his PHD area of sleep. Dr Fowler has worked with both elite athletes and community athletes to help them recover from sport, sleep better and maintain general health and fitness. Dr Fowler’s love for sport began as a child watching his father play cricket and he is now passionate about cricket, field hockey and soccer but has worked with athletes of all disciplines. Here are some of the highlights from Dave’s conversation with Dr Fowler.
Sleep should be the number one for athletic recovery
Sleep is free and accessible to everyone however many athletes find it hard to prioritise which is where their recovery falls down.
Dr Fowler identified that routine, consistency and sleep environment are the driving forces in having a quality sleep. Consistency is important for the body clock to align with your day and training schedule, so you are alert at the right times.
Optimal sleep conditions are in a cave-like environment which is cool, dark and quiet. Dr Fowler stresses that quantity is not as important as quality, provided the athlete is prioritising their sleep. Roger Federer is an athlete who has consistently good sleep and he is a good example of the performance benefits that good sleep can have. Dr Fowler believes Roger’s commitment to sleep shows that good habits from a young age can mean many more years of competition.
Follow the recovery pyramid
Dr Fowler identified a recovery pyramid that athletes need to build on in order to recover optimally. The base blocks are sleep, nutrition and mental state, the next level is training program and the top level is recovery modalities. Dr Fowler delved deeply into his PHD topic of sleep which is critical in boosting blood flow. By having an increased blood flow, it is beneficial to repairing muscle and replenishing energy stores. Dr Fowler also identified that the top of the pyramid can even help with the base blocks through the use of regular heat therapy or hot/cold water therapy which aid sleep. Additionally, mental recovery can be aided by leaving devices switched off during training and taking time to meditate at the end of each session.
Develop a sleep routine
In order to have good, quality sleep the brain needs to properly prepare. A constant sleep time is just the first step in the routine. There should also be a reminder 30-60 minutes before bed so that the right signals are being sent to the brain to ready it for switching off. Dimming the lights to reduce light exposure is crucial as is minimising the brightness on screens. Bright light suppresses melatonin and shifts the body clock later which makes it harder to fall asleep. Switching from stimulating activities (such as scrolling social media, sending emails or playing video games) to relaxing activities (such as meditation, breathing exercises or reading) can also help the brain prepare for sleep.
Periodise recovery as well as training
Dr Fowler has found that recovery should be altered slightly for the type of sport, point in the season and day of the week. Contact sport will typically require more cold therapy as the cold has a pain reducing effect which is useful with the knocks and corks that accompany playing rugby and the like. The cold reduces muscle temperature and reduces nerve activity which relieves soreness. In the pre-season, recovery takes more of a backseat to encourage training adaptations. During the season, recovery needs to be prioritised in order to ready players for their next game. Throughout the week there will also need to be slightly periodised recovery. For example, for a rugby player, they will need to prioritise cold therapy immediately after a game for pain management. Towards the middle of the week, training needs to prioritised to encourage loading. Heading into the next game, the recovery aim will be to reduce fatigue through modalities such as contrast water therapy which stimulates the nervous system.
Maintain a mental and social balance
Dr Fowler highlights the importance of maintaining life balance with both the mental and social aspects, not just the physical. He explains a phenomenon called the Amygdala Hijack where a lack of sleep switches off the front of the brain (much like alcohol) and allows the middle of the brain (the emotional centre) to take control. This takes an enormous mental toll on the athlete and doesn’t allow them to compete at their potential. For a professional athlete, there is also the increased media involvement which takes a big toll on their mental health. Socially, it is important to take time away from sport and connect with friends and family.
Follow the 4 Rs of Diet
While Dr Fowler’s expertise is not in dietetics and he recommends the consultation of a professional dietitian, he gave a quick run through of some key diet principles. The first is rehydration. It is important to replace 150% of fluid lost during a training session within 4 hours. For example, if weight is taken at the start and end of a session and the athlete has lost 1kg this means they will need to drink 1.5L. The second is replenishment. It is important for athletes to eat enough carbohydrates, particularly when there is a small window between training and matches. The third is repair which relates to adequate intake of protein. The final is rest which relates to sufficient sleep and supplementing naps throughout the day if necessary.
If you’re interested in reading more about this then you’ll love this article on Hydration and Heat Management for Sport by Sports Dietician Eliza Freney.
Don’t believe everything you read
Dr Fowler explains that many misconceptions arise from misinformation. A driving force in recovery research is the finding that overtraining is not caused by too much training but in not enough recovery. As the interest around recovery as a training tool has increased so, too, has the interest in using recovery protocols as a means to make a quick buck. He notes that in the industry he has seen claims for a cryotherapy session yielding the same results as a 45-minute ice bath or that 1 float tank session is the same as 4 hours sleep. These modes of recovery can be utilised in combination with other modalities, however there is no ‘quick fix’. Just like training – you get out what you put in!
Some final recommendations
For emerging athletes without access to many of the high-end facilities that professionals have, Dr Fowler has some accessible solutions. Showers can be an easy way to implement contrast water therapy whereby athletes can do 1 minute hot water and 1 minute cold water for 5 repetitions. He has also identified that actively moving a muscle is always better than static stretching. Medical grade compression garments can also be a cost-effective option for muscle recovery between sessions or overnight.
We hope that conversation was beneficial to support your queries on athletic rest and recovery and the importance of sleep as a key pillar of sports recovery.
If you’d like to see the full conversation you can view it here Dave Shillington chats to Dr Peter Fowler
You can find Dr Peter Fowler on Instagram – recovery__room
Image by William Stitt