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The importance of sport recovery and 'listening to your body'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

"Listen to your body." A simple message, but often forgotten, according to University of Waikato Senior Lecturer Matthew Driller.

Recently named Acting Head of Performance Physiology for High Performance Sport New Zealand, Matt is one of the University of Waikato’s leading innovators in the field of Health, Sport and Human Performance.

He’s hot on recovery. After spending many years working with elite athletes across a wide variety of sports, Matt noticed one universal problem: athletes and coaches alike often neglect certain areas of post-game and post-training recovery, yet it is essential for top performance.

So fatigue and recovery became his main focus area and he’s published plenty on the subject.

Between juggling his new role as Acting Head of Performance Physiology with High Performance Sport New Zealand alongside his position as Senior Lecturer at the University of Waikato, we managed to pin Matt down to talk about his research.

What drew your attention to the importance of recovery?

In 2009 I took a job at the Australian Institute of Sport as a Recovery Physiologist working with elite athletes. Before that, I’d always had an interest in athletes’ recovery, so it was a dream job to focus on this. I always felt that certain aspects of recovery were often neglected by athletes, and it’s an area where performance gains can be made.

Why is recovery so important?

Athletes and casual gym-goers often focus on training for improving performance, but it’s the recovery from this training where the real adaptations occur. So adequate recovery between training sessions is critical to improving performance and not allowing the body to recover can lead to serious consequences - including injury and illness.

So, what’s the best way to incorporate rest and recovery into our training regimes?

For athletes of any ability, the three main areas to focus on are adequate sleep, nutrition and finding the right balance with training and rest. Athletes can use all the recovery strategies in the world, but if they aren’t sleeping enough, not eating well or simply training too hard with little rest, then their recovery will be hugely compromised. There’s a time and place for using recovery strategies (eg, ice-baths, compression garments, massage, etc.), however, it is important to first get the basics right before looking to these "one-percenters".

What is the biggest misconception about rest and recovery?

Often people only think about the physical side of rest and recovery, overlooking the mental/psychological side. It’s important for athletes to get away from their sport environment, switch off and have some fun. Allowing for this mental "refresh" on a regular basis helps to prevent athletes from getting stale in their sport and avoid the "Groundhog Day routine" that is often experienced by elite athletes.

Finding the right balance between training and rest can be tricky. How can we tell when we’re pushing ourselves too hard?

Listen to your body! In an elite athlete setting there are numerous physiological and psychological parameters that we monitor on a daily basis, such as heart rate variability, hormonal markers in the blood or saliva or simple health and wellbeing questionnaires.

While these are all useful tools, you can’t go past asking an athlete, "How do you feel?" The same goes for gym-goers or recreational athletes. When you feel tired, sore or feel like you’re getting sick - take it easy! Obviously it’s normal to feel some level of tiredness and soreness, so you need to figure out what your "normal" threshold is. Anything above this and you need to back-off your training a bit to allow your body to recover.

You mentioned sleep is one of the key factors to recovery, how does sleep (or lack of) impact our performance in sport and everyday lives?

Lack of sleep can have detrimental effects on all areas of a person’s life. Not only may it inhibit athletic performance, research over the past few decades has shown all sorts of negative consequences of poor sleep, including weakened immune systems, slower reaction times and decision-making abilities, decreased mood-states and motivation levels as well as increased feelings of irritability, depression and anxiety.

Does this affect a person’s ability to maintain their weight?

Yes. There is existing evidence of the link between sleep deprivation and obesity levels - likely related to factors such as decreased metabolism and increased hunger levels related to poor sleep.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in studying health, sport, and human performance?

Ask lots of questions! Talk to people in the industry and have an idea of what kind of area you aspire to work in when you finish your degree. Whether it be teaching, sport science, exercise physiology, coaching, nutrition, health promotion, community sport or personal training, it is important you gain as much experience alongside your degree as possible.

Students at the University of Waikato have an advantage here - they have access to some of New Zealand’s leading sports facilities, such as the University of Waikato Sport Science Laboratory at the Cambridge Avantidrome and the University of Waikato Adams Centre for High Performance in Tauranga. Students can rub shoulders with high performance athletes who train there. It’s the ideal way to get good industry experience!

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