Fatigue makes cowards of us all. – Vince Lombardi
Recovery is every bit as important in preparation for games as practice, lifting weights, conditioning and film study. Most athletes don’t do recovery well, at least not as well as they could. Particularly in football, where there is a level of bravado about hard work and pain, talking about the need to rest and recover can be viewed as weakness. We don’t even like to use the word “fatigue” because it is perceived as something lacking in the player. However, Vince Lombardi understood what fatigue could do fifty years ago, and no one would accuse him of being soft.
Recovery consists of proper levels of rest and good nutrition and hydration – giving your body what it needs to build stronger and be prepared for game day.
ProPlayerInsiders sat down with Dr. John Sullivan, Clinical Sports Psychologist to talk about the impact of rest, recovery and nutrition on the performance of elite athletes.
Many people think that working out is what makes them stronger, but that’s not really the case. Working out provides the stimulus for growth by putting your body under stress, but growth actually occurs during periods of rest after working out. Not giving your body proper nutrition and sufficient rest prevents growth from occurring and can actually result in your workouts making you weaker.
Although it’s a cliché, it really isn’t how hard you work but how smart you work, and recovery is a key factor in achieving improvement from your workouts.
How does rest and recovery improve performance on game day?
Studies with college athletes have shown that increasing rest correlates directly to improved performance. Seven to eight weeks of increasing the amount of sleep per night with college football players resulted in a tenth of a second improvement in 40-yard dash times and 20-yard shuttle. We all know how much of a difference running a 4.5 instead of a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash correlates to in the NFL combine, and how much on-the-field training it takes to improve. Unfortunately, getting sufficient sleep is frequently an overlooked component of performance.
In addition to physical performance, proper rest allows your brain to operate better, which impacts everything you do. On the football field, improved reaction time, pattern recognition and eye-hand coordination all make an enormous difference in how well an athlete performs in a game situation.
What are the risks associated with insufficient rest and recovery?
In jobs where people’s lives are in the balance, like air traffic controllers and airline pilots, the government mandates periods of rest between work sessions. Performance and decision making is significantly deteriorated without sufficient rest. The same holds true for all of us. While poor decision making on a football field may not result in a plane crash, a slow decision could easily result in giving up a touchdown, missing a blitz pickup, or throwing an interception which could cost your team a win.
In addition to decreased performance and poor decisions, sleep deprivation can cause other side effects like mood changes and depression. The likelihood of players suffering injuries and the time necessary to recover will both increase with insufficient rest.
Playing in the NFL is a high stress job. If the season starts late this year due to the lockout, those stresses will increase. The NFL has already announced a plan to compress the season by removing bye weeks, which will further increase the level of stress and reduce the amount of time for recovery during the season.
At the professional sport level, we have the expectation that everything that could be afforded to improve safety, performance and career longevity is done, but unfortunately that’s not always the case.
What about nutrition as a component to recovery?
Nutrition is vital to provide your body what it needs to recover from games and workouts, and to build strength and muscle. Education on proper nutrition is important to enable the players to make healthy choices. Some players have been well educated on proper nutrition from college, but not all NCAA programs have sports nutritionists or nutrition programs. In the NFL, most players actually get most of their nutrition during the season in the facility, in the form of breakfast, lunch, snacks and hydration during the day.
Some teams emphasize nutrition by focusing on weight, and will institute fines if players don’t make weight, but judging the effectiveness of a workout / nutrition program is about more than just weight and food intake. Body composition is an important component, which can be measured by body fat immersion testing, calipers, or technologies like BodPod, which is now used at the NFL combine to evaluate potential recruits.
How do players and teams manage their recovery programs? How do they know if they are doing a good job?
At the team level across the NFL, there are a variety of different approaches. Some teams handle it very well, but others don’t. Teams generally put a significant focus on nutrition but not all focus on rest and recovery, which is equally important. Ideally, a complete program includes objective methods to measure players’ recovery to ensure that they are getting enough sleep to perform at the highest levels.
There are multiple technologies available to assess proper rest, and we try to look at unbiased data. Self reporting is one obvious way, but it is inherently inaccurate and subjective. We look at heart rate data and heart rate variability as an indicator of when players aren’t resting sufficiently. Actiographs are devices that look like a wrist-watch and include an accelerometer to measure when the wearer is resting. They are available from companies such as Philips and Fatigue Science.
What are other key factors, beyond sleep and proper nutrition?
Active recovery is another key component that provides rest and encourages mental and emotional health. Anything that keeps the heart rate low and that the athlete enjoys doing can serve this function. It could be something like yoga or meditation, it could be activities done with friends like hunting, fishing or boating. For some players, it can simply be spending time with friends outside of football that allow them to get away from their job and focus on something other than the game. These types of activities provide a positive distraction and help to give energy back to the player, which ultimately allows them to perform better and have longer and healthier careers.
Don’t underestimate the importance of rest. It’s a huge competitive advantage.