Science of football: Recovery with insight from FC Barcelona

The Barcelona doctor combined with Goal's own Sport Science columnist Dr. Bahdur to discuss fatigue in football

In previous columns I discussed fatigue in detail.

These covered the effects of training and how heavy training loads, constant travel, congested fixtures cause fatigue and the “they get paid to do a job so shouldn’t complain about fatigue” does not really fit in from either a physiological, psychosocial or cognitive perspective.

Fatigue decreases performance, increases injury risk and this can have both physical and mental consequences that can extend beyond the short term.  Dr Ricard Pruna who is part of the medical team of FC Barcelona joined me for this column in trying to summarise the different recovery methods.


So how do we beat fatigue?

One of the key combat strategies is managing the workloads of players and monitoring their levels of fatigue to ensure that there are measures put in place to prevent fatigue instead trying to react to it.

This can be done using both objective measurements but also subjective information. A team that has enough trust within the set-up enables players to be honest when they might be feeling physically, emotionally or mentally tired.

Being open allows medical and scientific teams, together with the technical teams to devise individualised strategies to help the player.

This can include: giving the player a few days off from training, resting players for matches, adjusting their individual load during training, or if the player is from another country or city, some time to go home.

Danish players eat fruits at the end of a training session at the Football Club in Randburg, on May 31, 2010

With heavily congested schedules and the pressure to play the best players all the time, it is not always possible to manage the workloads so other recovery strategies can be used.

The first one is a simple, cheap and effective solution. Sleep!

It is important that players get enough sleep to allow their bodies to recover. This sleep can be in the form of a power nap after training or ensuring the players get a full night’s sleep after a match.

While this seems easy enough in theory, it is important to remember that playing matches can hype up the player and keep them awake. So even though a player may be physically tired from a match, the mind stays awake and prevents getting enough sleep.

Teams can provide players with advice on how to maximise sleep. These generally include: minimising phone use when going to bed, listening to calming or relaxing sounds, ensure the room is dark enough and stay in quiet areas.

Teams can also enhance the effect of sleep by adjusting times to report at training for the next day, or looking at travel plans that can maximise the players sleep.

One of the challenges some players face is the fact that when staying at hotels they find themselves in an unfamiliar environment, with an unfamiliar bed which can also compromise quality of sleep.

This can be countered by minimising nights players need to spend away from home and even by staying in hotels that have a standard set-up so it becomes familiar. 

Routine is another way to improve recovery.

Jozy Altidore hamstring injury USA World Cup 06162014

You have probably seen that after the full-time whistle, players get together and do some stretching.

This contributes to speeding up the recovery process. A good cool down usually would consist of some active recovery (walking, slow jogging) followed by stretching.

In some cases, the cooldown may be followed by ice baths or contrast baths.

Ice baths have traditionally always been used, but in recent years, questions have risen regarding their impact. Contrast baths include ice baths alternated with a few seconds in a hot shower.

You may have heard that the day after a game, most teams have a recovery/regeneration session.

This is usually referred to as active rest and enables the body to recover quicker as opposed to having a full day off.  

Water is often a good medium for recovery techniques, players can do some light exercises while in water to increase the rate of recovery.

In addition to these training methods, a key part of recovery is the post-session nutrition.

Dieticians can provide individualised eating plans that maximise recovery.

Dimitri Payet Marseille Atletico Madrid UEFA Europa League 16052018

General advice includes eating high GI carbohydrates immediately after, followed by low GI carbohydrates later and proteins.

Liquids containing electrolytes are also important, while liquids such as milk have also proven to play a role in recovery.

Not only is the type of food consumed important, but so is the timing of the consumption.

Players should avoid alcohol (no, the argument that beer has carbohydrates is not a good one).

Carbonated drinks, may have increased in use within sport, but should be avoided especially when still gaseous. 

Antioxidants also can play an important role in recovery.

Compression garments have also come to play a role in recovery. This can improve blood flow which enhances the recovery.

Massage is a classic recovery technique, that is still very effective.

Icardi injured Inter Bologna Serie A 12032016

For those who can afford it, newer technologies such as cryotherapy, Normatec, vacuum therapy, hyperbaric chambers can all play a role in providing that extra edge when legs are tired and minor niggles and knocks are constant.

In addition to tools which improve recovery from physical exertion, teams should have strategies to minimise mental fatigue and the fatigue associated with things like travel.

Mental fatigue can be minimised by ensuring players have enough time away from the team set-up.

The constant time away can be hard and take a toll on a player’s family life.

Even when out with the family, players may be constantly reminded of their professional life through fans or media.

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A strong, close support structure play a key role in ensuring that players can switch off, or have a space where they can just be human, away from the public persona and entitlement often asked of professional athletes.

Recovery forms an important part of the planning processes and using the right recovery techniques, at the right time can be key in providing an edge and increasing consistency of performances. To summarise recovery, Dr Pruna suggested these effective methods that he recommends: 

Dr. Pruna beating fatigue