By Jade Belzberg
While improving fitness was once all about the number of hours you put into your training, recovery has recently come into the spotlight: for good reason, too. Without adequate recovery, it’s not possible to maintain a robust immune system, support hormones, and regulate mood, let alone perform to potential.
As athletes have opened up about the risks of training without adequately balancing recovery, the urge to push hard all day, every day, has been replaced with compression boots, meditation apps, and greens that have taken on a cult-like following amongst endurance athletes. Tempting as it may be to follow the trends, money and time can be saved by maximizing on the most important parts of recovery: sleep, nutrition, and mental health. Beyond this, there are several ways you can help the recovery process, both for short and long-term training. Here are some potential ways to aid recovery that are worth checking out:
Beyond nutrition and the importance of eating enough to support your training, sleeping well is critical in order to repair your body following hard or long training sessions. While taking naps as needed can be helpful, few athletes have the time in their days to drop work or familial obligations and sleep for an hour. Instead, improving the quality of your sleep during the night is often more practical. Part of this comes from prolonging your sleep. Try going to bed before 10 p.m., and try to do so in a room that is dark, quiet, and unplugged from electronic devices. Additionally, keeping to a similar evening routine–such as dinner at 6 p.m., reading at 8 p.m., and lights off at 9:30 p.m.—and avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine, after 12 p.m., can also help.
For those who have difficulty sleeping, some herbs can be supportive. These include valerian root, passionflower, chamomile, and lemon balm. Dried herbs can be purchased in bulk online or at your local health food store. Always opt for organic, when possible, since dried herbs are highly concentrated and more susceptible to pesticides, particularly when infusing them in hot water. While capsules are available, I like the routine of making my own tea infusion each night.
- Micronutrients and Antioxidants
Macronutrients—like carbohydrates, protein, and fat—are the big picture of what athletes need adequate amounts of to train and recover. Micronutrients, however, are just as critical, though not as often addressed. Many athletes may be familiar with using carbohydrates during hard training sessions and recovering with protein and carbohydrates. However, micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, are necessary for every function in the body. This is particularly important in sports.
Foods rich in micronutrients are always a good place to start, but look to herbs as an additional way to include important nutrients. For example, nettle, alfalfa, and oat straw all contain good amounts of calcium while horsetail is high in silica. Make a tea infusion, and let it steep for several hours or overnight to achieve the highest concentration of these minerals. During warmer months, I’ll put the infusion in the fridge to cool, then pour it into my soft flasks for a refreshing on-the-run drink. Honey can be added to taste and for some additional carbohydrates.
While we typically think of antioxidants as compounds within blueberries, pomegranates, cherries and other brightly colored fruits and vegetables, antioxidants can be readily found in most spice drawers, too. Rosemary, cinnamon, paprika, and parsley, for example, all contain high levels of antioxidants and act as anti-inflammatories, making them a helpful addition to meals. Both fresh and dried herbs are great, but ensure that dried herbs are less than one year old to ensure highest amounts of these health properties.
- Prebiotics and Probiotics
Prebiotics and probiotics are often talked about as part of general health and wellness, but a healthy gut microbiome can also have performance benefits. As Dr. Stacy Sims writes in ROAR: How to Match Your Foot and Fitness to Your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life, performance benefits of probiotics include improved immunity, energy, and heat tolerance. Including prebiotics and probiotics in your diet can reduce the degradation of your gut lining, though the best sources are likely to be from whole foods. Look to include probiotics like kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt and prebiotics like onion, garlic, asparagus, flaxseeds and oats into your diet to make the biggest difference. While probiotic supplements can help, quality and specificity are important. If choosing a supplement, work with a health care practitioner who can determine the appropriate strain of probiotic for your symptoms.
While sometimes popular among endurance athletes, avoid NSAIDs, which include acetaminophen and ibuprofen. These products can increase the risk of leaky gut, and ultimately decrease performance and recovery.
Adaptogens, found in plants, are substances that regulate the body’s functions. In most cases, we think of adaptogens as counteracting stress, but they may be used to both energize and relax the body. For example, rhodiola may be used to increase energy whereas ashwagandha may be calming to the nervous system. Most adaptogens are available as whole herbs that can be made into infusions, or purchased as tinctures or in capsules. Several studies, including a 2021 systematic review, found that supplementing with ashwagandha root improves sleep quality and may alleviate insomnia without side effects. While not every adaptogen is right for every individual, it’s worth exploring the ways in which these compounds can help athletes improve recovery.
Always consult with your health care provider before starting any new supplement.
Bonilla, D. A., Moreno, Y., Gho, C., Petro, J. L., Odriozola-Martínez, A., & Kreider, R. B. (2021). Effects of Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) on Physical Performance: Systematic Review and Bayesian Meta-Analysis. Journal of functional morphology and kinesiology, 6(1), 20. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8006238/
Groves, M. N. (2016). Body into balance: An herbal guide to holistic self-care. Storey Publishing.
Sims, Stacy. (2016). Roar: How to match Your Food and Fitness to Your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life. Rodale Books.
Shinjyo, N., Waddell, G., & Green, J. (2020). Valerian Root in Treating Sleep Problems and Associated Disorders-A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of evidence-based integrative medicine, 25, 2515690X20967323. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7585905/
Vitale, K. C., Owens, R., Hopkins, S. R., & Malhotra, A. (2019). Sleep Hygiene for Optimizing Recovery in Athletes: Review and Recommendations. International journal of sports medicine, 40(8), 535–543. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6988893/