Recovery helps you perform better and feel better, physically and mentally. It takes commitment, though, and some trial and error. No two swimmers respond to recovery strategies in the same way. Even a single swimmer will respond differently depending on what challenges he faces inside and outside the pool. You need to learn what works best for you, and you need to make it happen.
You should have a recovery plan that covers workouts, off days and race days. It should include nutrition, hydration, and sleep. Incorporate mental tools and recovery aids such as massage, ice and stretching. And, it must be written. There is too much to track to keep it in your head. Use your training log or swimming journal to record your recovery activities for several weeks and start to make connections between your recovery plan and your soreness, energy level, and ability to achieve your practice and race goals.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
The What and The When
What should you eat? Are you getting the calories and nutrients you need from your diet? What is the right balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates for health and maximum energy? Nutrients help repair cellular damage for 24-48 hours after exercise. Having the right nutrients available will improve recovery.
When should you eat it? More and more research shows that the timing of what you eat is nearly as important as what you are eating. Eating carbs before practice can help maintain energy levels, and protein before practice may stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Too large a pre-swim meal can divert blood from muscles to digestion, and some conditions, such as acid-reflux disease, may respond better to avoiding snacks directly before a workout. The right mix of carbs and protein just after practice can aid in muscle recovery, but athletes sometimes overestimate the amount their bodies need after a workout. Too large a snack may cause unwanted weight gain or interfere with appetite at the next nutritious meal. Experts can give guidelines, but the right Nutrition Plan is something only you can develop. See the 24-Hour Athlete's Nutrition page for more details.
You Are Probably Dehydrated
You also need a hydration plan. An estimated 75% of young athletes show up to practice each day already dehydrated. Practicing while dehydrated increases the risk of injury and reduces the body's ability to repair itself. Headaches, cramping, and nausea during practice are dehydration warning signs. The easiest way to track your hydration is by examining the color of your urine. It should be clear to a light straw color.
Water is critical for peak performance. It helps transport nutrients, eliminate waste, lubricate joints and tissues, regulate body temperature, and aid digestion. Plan ahead so that you have plenty of fresh water available to drink before, during and after practice. Sports drinks are generally unnecessary if your diet provides adequate sodium and potassium. Beans, spinach, squash, yogurt, fish, avocado, mushrooms, bananas, and coconut water may be a better dietary source than sports drinks. See the 24-Hour Athlete's Nutrition page for more details.
Growth and Repair
Sleep is a time for growth and repair. Growth hormones accelerate protein synthesis during sleep, allowing your body to repair and develop muscle tissue. Glycogen, the fuel associated with endurance, stores in the muscles and liver more rapidly during sleep. The brain stores memories and aids learning during sleep. It restores a person physically and mentally. Young swimmers need eight to nine hours of quality sleep each night. Regular sleeping and waking times, good sleep habits that include putting away the electronics before bed, and a quiet, cool and dark room will help ensure quality sleep.
Some experts recommend that you can augment, but not replace, a proper night's sleep with a "power nap" of about 15-20 minutes. Your recovery plan could include working in such a nap at a time that helps you stay alert without throwing off your sleep cycle.
Occasional late nights can be "caught up" by sleeping extra to make up for the sleep deficit, but habitually missing out will lead to sleep deprivation. Signs of sleep deprivation include difficulty waking in the morning, exhaustion during the day, or falling asleep within a few minutes. Sleep deprivation may reduce muscle strength and endurance and may affect your memory, your mood and your ability to focus. New research indicates that your psychomotor functions (the link between your brain and your physical movements) are impaired when you are sleep-deprived. This leads to a proportional decrease in athletic performance. Scholar athletes need good time management skills to be sure they get enough sleep each night. (See time management for more information.)
Still not convinced? Stanford's NCAA swim team gave it a try in a recent study. After 6 weeks of additional sleep (an extra 1-2 hours per night compared to what the swimmers were getting before), swimmers were 0.15 seconds faster off of the blocks. Their 15-meter sprints were an average of a half a second faster, and their turn times dropped an average of a tenth of a second. Add it up. Sleep matters
Ready To Work
Reduce Injury Risk, Engage Energy Systems, Mentally Prepare
Reduce Risk of Injury Warming up raises body temperature, which decreases muscle and joint resistance, and delivers oxygen and nutrients to your muscles for a reduced risk of injury.
Enhanced Endurance Warming up properly raises blood pressure and temperature gradually, reducing the energy cost of sudden, intense exercise for safer, more sustainable performance
Activates Your Nervous System Humans are not particularly efficient in the water. It is not a natural substrate for us, so neural memory loss is rapid. Get in the water and reacquaint your nervous system for maximum efficiency in your practice set or race. Also, sprinting during warm up alerts your fast-twitch, or speed muscle fibers, to be ready to get up and race.
Prepares Respiratory System During your next practice warm up, notice how long it takes you to feel like you have your breath control. Sufficient warm up ensures all the parts of the respiratory system are ready to deliver oxygen to your body when it is needed.
Elements of a Good Workout
Dynamic Warmup Warm up on deck before you get in the pool, but not with old-fashioned stretches. Static stretching can cause injury and actually reduce performance. Dynamic stretching, continuously moving through a range of motion, helps prevent injury, improves neuromuscular adaptation (muscle memory) and shortens the amount of training time you need to spend warming up. You can tailor it to your needs, so that when you get into the group pool warm-up, you have what you need to perform your best. Dynamic Warm-Up
Warm Up Routine A regular warm-up routine may need adjusting but it establishes a reliable base to build an excellent practice or race on. The familiar routine of it may also help to calm you before a race. Be sure to include:
Gentle and Mindful Swimming - Warm up your body gradually. Building an oxygen debt will not improve performance. Reinforce excellent technique to activate muscle memory, and employ tools from your metal tookit to be psychologically ready.
Pace Work- You are not done warming up until you can change speed easily.
Race Pace - Do a little race pace swimming. Go fast enough to fire up all of your energy systems. Is your first race often too slow? You are not going fast enough in warm ups.
Keep Core Temperature Up - If there is a delay on meet day, be sure to keep your core temperature elevated. Warm clothes, warm liquids, and brisk body movement will help. This is the single most predictable factor for fast swimming after a delay between warm up and racing.
Ready to Recover
Warm Down is indispensable. Easy, quality laps at the end of every workout will help you begin the recovery process and reinforce neural memory of proper technique. Going right from a hard set to a stop means heart rate drops, reducing circulation just when your muscles most need the blood flow to carry away waste and provide needed nutrients to start the repair process.
How to Warm Down is highly individual. Studies give us some guidelines for you to consider as you develop your warm-down plans.
Warm-Down more than you think You need a minimum of 15-20 minutes of slow swimming or easy movement on land. Slow swimming gives you a chance to work on technique, but any easy movement will do.
In between fast repeats - relax in the water Passive in-water recovery is better than active recovery - in or out of the water - between fast sets if speed is the goal. Slow swims between fast sets are designed to increase your ability to race when fatigued, not to help you gauge top practice speed.
How Fast? How fast should you swim at the start of the warm down? If you end on a full-exertion set or race? Shoot for about 40% of your workout speed and then decrease it. A long, mixed-effort practice? Try 60% of your 100 meter time for the first 5 minutes of warm down.
For more on warm down strategies at meets see the Race Daypage
Ready to Excel
Static stretching is best done 30 - 60 minutes after exercising. Muscles that are still warm from exercise but no longer fatigued will respond better and with less chance of injury. A gentle post-exercise session will keep your circulation flowing, removing waste and speeding nutrients to your muscles. It will also help release the knots and adhesions that are forming post-exercise. Guidelines recommend stretching approximately 5 days a week, for 1-3 reps of 15-30 seconds each. A post-workout routine may take only 15 to 30 minutes.
There is no need for swimmers to exceed normal range of motion. The sport does not demand it. However, during a season some flexibility will naturally be lost. Maintaining flexibility improves posture, helps prevent hip and low back pain, releases muscle tension and soreness, and normalizes your range of motion. Check out USAS Static Stretches for After Practice for a place to start. If soreness or inflexibility is a consistent problem for you consider consulting a healthcare professional for functional movement screening and a stretching program that is just right for you. Post-exercise stretching will make you feel better and perform better.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
Your muscles metabolize glucose for energy, creating lactic acid as a byproduct. When you have depleted fifty percent or more of your glucose stores during a workout your muscles use lactic acid for energy.
OLD SCIENCE Muscle soreness hours after a workout comes from that lactic acid build-up. The goal of recovery is to clear the excess lactic acid and other waste in your muscles.
NEW SCIENCE Lactic acid causes the burn you feel during and immediately after an intense workout. However, lactic acid clears within two hour of exercise. It is not the culprit for the muscle soreness you feel when you wake up in the morning. That soreness, called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), comes from the muscle and fascia (tissue surrounding muscle) fibers that tear, knot or tangle during exercise, creating microscopic scar tissue. This scar tissue is weaker and less flexible. It does not get enough blood flow, which means it does not get the nutrients it needs to heal as quickly. Overtime, it can develop many times more nerve endings than the healthy tissue around it, making it quite painful.
Athletes should expect some muscle soreness as workouts tear muscle down to build more strength and endurance. However, improper warm up or warm down, poor technique, inadequate sleep or nutrition, and poor posture can contribute to the pain without improving performance. Elite athletes manage DOMS by strictly adhering to their recovery plans - minimizing unnecessary tissue damage and promoting rapid healing. They learn to distinguish pain - a sign that something is wrong - from soreness, which is a natural part of the fitness process. Minimize DOMS with the essential of a good recovery plan, above. You may also consider the following recovery strategies as well.
Other Tools to Combat DOMS
Local Ice or Ice Bath
Athletes often immerse their bodies in an ice-bath for no more than twenty minutes after a workout to reduce soreness and inflammation for up to 24 hours. The idea of an ice-bath is that the hydrostatic pressure from immersion and/or the sudden drop in blood volume in the muscles will increase circulation, reducing the harmful byproducts of tissue damage and bringing more nutrients to the affected area. The science is still inconclusive, but a growing number of elite athletes report significant benefit.
Young swimmers can try a post-workout shower that starts at a comfortable temperature. They can gradually turn the shower cooler, more comfortably and easily lowering body temperature. Putting ice on local areas of soreness can improve comfort, but is not a substitute for diagnosing a problem that can lead to injury. There is also recent research that indicates that icing an area immediately post-workout may delay muscle growth in that area.
Your healthcare professional may recommend you avoid foods that can increase inflammation, or add foods rich in naturally-occurring anti-inflamatory compounds such as turmeric and ginger. For temporary intense soreness they may prescribe NSAIDs (drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin.) Use care to take these medications only as directed and be aware of side-effects. These may be mild, such as temporary indigestion or slower muscle growth. However, side effects can be quite serious and even life-threatening.
Swimmers use massage to improve recovery after practice, help before or after an event, to relax, or to help treat an injury. To help prevent DOMS, the massage must be administered within 24 hours of the intense workout. It can be as short as five minutes or as long as ninety minutes. USA Swimming reminds you that coaches cannot perform massages for athletes, even if the coach is a licensed massage therapist. Instead, look for an experienced sports massage therapist. See USA Swimming Is Massage Right For You? for more information.
Myofascial Release (foam rollers/tennis balls)
Foam Roller - Proponents of foam rollers recommend their use to release knotted muscles and fascia, and improve circulation and range of motion. As with compression garments, a direct correlation between use of foam rollers and improved performance has not been established. However, studies consistently show that athletes report less DOMS after using foam rollers and other myofascial release tools and techniques. Spend at least 60 seconds in any one position or knotted muscle. The best time for mysofascial release may be immediately before or after bed, and working in more sessions in a day may be beneficial.
Research shows that compression clothing can accelerate lactate clearance from the muscle tissue and reduce heart rate following high-intensity exercise. There are no studies linking use of these garments to improved performance, and some indication that the affect may be more psychological than physical. However, these garments are increasingly popular with elite swimmers during meets when quick recovery between prelims and finals sessions of a meet give a performance edge.