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The science of recovery - how you can get the most out of your body

From diet to hydration, these are they keys to preparing for the next session.

TWO-TIME TOUR de France champion Chris Froome was in Dublin last week to tell the Web Summit audience about the now-famous marginal gains which Team Sky accrue in their bid for the yellow jersey every year.

But those of us who wheel our bikes out the front gate each Saturday morning for a weekend spin can learn as much about sports recovery as those climbing Mont Ventoux.

What is sports recovery?

With so much at stake in professional sport, coaches and athletes seek any advantage they can legitimately claim. From better-designed equipment to use of data to supplements, everyone is looking for an edge.

Recovery is now a cornerstone of any successful training programme — particularly for those who need to perform soon after an event like a runner at the Olympics or a boxer in a tournament.

Increasing the rate and quality of an athlete’s recovery brings myriad benefits like allowing them to compete or train at a high level quickly… and then ultimately, success.

“I think recovery would have to be placed in context from a nutrition point of view of the training week or the training day,” says Sharon Madigan, Head of Performance Nutrition at the Irish Institute of Sport. ”Usually from a nutrition perspective if you have a very hard session you are very lucky if you can recover the body back up to where it was within 24 hours.

“If you think about some athletes who might train twice in the day, this is a really important part of that process because they can find themselves going into a subsequent session depleted and tired. And what happens is that over a long period of time, this increases the risk of injury or poor performance or health which is obviously really important as well.”

So what are the best methods to aid recovery?

More sleep


Pull those curtains, get the whale noises going and get into bed.

Brian Kerr once said that notorious dozer Damien Duff suffered from ‘adhesive-mattress syndrome’ but the Ireland winger was ahead of his time in enjoying the benefits of rest throughout a hugely successful career.

Team Sky bring their own duvets and pillows from stage to stage as they realise how important a good night’s sleep is between stages.

Star News / YouTube

“Rest is the key pillar almost,” says Madigan. “Sometimes less is more and the body has a great way of regenerating itself. And obviously from a development point of view, lots of things go on at a cellular level when people are sleeping. We get back and ready to go again for the next session.

“What you find sometimes is that your amateur player — people who are working — they can struggle with that because they’ve got such a big commitment across a range of things. So sometimes burning the candle at both ends can affect them at one point in that.”

Studies in the NBA have shown a marked improvement in players’ free-throwing, speed agility and more after a good night’s kip. There’s a real relationship between sleep and performance enhancement. So hit that snooze button if you’re hoping to medal in Rio next summer.



This is a biggie. Filling your fridge with the right balance of foods will not make you the next Paul O’Connell or Katie Taylor, unfortunately.

But it’s true that a poor diet will prevent an athlete from achieving their full potential. so make sure you:

  • Get in the right amount of carbs – think 6g per kg of body weight. This is the fuel that will keep you going in the gym or under floodlights.
  • Hit the right amount of calories per day.
  • Take it easy on the alcohol.
  • Cut down the sugar. You’re sweet enough.
  • Choose low salt foods
  • Timing of meals and snacks is key
  • Athletes need to realise its not the expensive supplements that will make a difference but small changes to diet.

Tailor your week

Larissa Muldoon

Diet is important but a good plan isn’t a one-size fits all effort. You need to match your food and fluid input to the exercise you plan on undertaking.

“When I speak to athletes the focus should be on individual days,” says Madigan. “Try to target and tailor your days rather than saying this is what I always do. That would be the key one really.”

And that applies to the likes of you too, weekend warrior.

“It’s great that people are tapping into what they drink and eat and what they don’t, these days. I think you’ve got two very interesting mentalities.

“You’ve got a group that are probably very focused. We’ve got a term called clean eating that you’ll have heard of — if it’s not green or organic and certainly not out of a packet. But sometimes that reduces the athlete’s overall calorie consumption. So there is the  thought that if you eat too much, you’ll put on weight. And that is true for Joe Public.

“But what happens is if you do 500 calories on the bike on a Saturday and you cut back on what you’re eating on that day, then your ability to recover from that isn’t going to be as good. You’d be better off making sure you’re well fuelled up around that day and cutting back at another time in the week.

“That’s sometimes where people get it wrong and where I would encourage people to do: look at your day and week, and tailor your eating. Pre loading up, recovery after and look at the rest of the days where you could possibly cut back.


Marty Morrissey takes the ice bucket challenge Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

We all know you’ve got to take on the right amount of fluids to perform at our best.

If you’re thirsty, you haven’t taken enough on board.

Water helps regulate your temperature, circulates nutrients around the body and lubricates your joints. As Steve Staunton will tell you, if a baseball cap-wearing FIFA official stops you from taking water on board you may suffer cramps, dizziness and it’s going to take you a lot longer to recover.

Madigan thinks those of us heading out for some exercise every weekend know the benefits of hydration at this stage too.

“I think that message has got through, in particular to the Saturday-triathletes or cyclist or runner or  whatever. Sometimes though what I see in some of the team sports — maybe your Gaelic footballers, for example — they’re working all day and they’ve realised ‘Ah, I haven’t drunk anything’ so they down a two-litre bottle of water before training.

“Well that’s not really going to cut the mustard. You have to think about little and often throughout the course of the day and that’s the crucial thing. And I think maybe sometimes you mix up your drinks because just water can flush out the body which can lead to cramp.”

Checking how hydrated you are is simple; maybe someday there’ll be an app for that but at the moment the best way is to monitor the colour of your urine. It’s a game all of us can enjoy.

You should be aiming for colours 1, 2 or 3 in the chart below and if you’re probably hydrated you’ll be peeing every couple of hours.

peecolour GAA GAA

Sharon Madigan is head nutritionist at the Irish Institute of Sport. 

Science Week takes place from 8-15th November 2015. This is Science Week’s 20th birthday, and the theme for this year is Science Week 2.0 – Design Your Future. Over the course of the week, there will be 800 events held nationwide, with an participating audience of 250,000. For events in your area, check out www.science.ie

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