the fundamentals of recovery with dr. robin thorpe
Having spent the last decade as the Senior Performance Scientist and Conditioning Coach for Manchester United, Dr. Robin Thorpe is no stranger to the world of performance and recovery. During his time with Manchester United, it was this question from head coach, Sir Alex Ferguson that prompted him to pursue an Applied PhD titled: How can we determine if an athlete is ready to perform? Dr. Thorpe has since solved this question on its surface, continuing to bring new research on the topic to light to date.
When looking at an athlete to determine if they’re ready to perform, Dr. Thorpe notes, "The first thing we need to look at is what this athlete is trying to recover from, or if they even need to recover. We mistakenly forget to address this question in the beginning all too often."
I think we’re in an era where recovery is seen as this one thing, but there’s mental recovery, mental exertion, mental fatigue, physical recovery, physical exertion. etc.
When you’re trying to work on recovery from a post-physical exertion standpoint, there are multiple components that work together. Dr. Thorpe had us consider the question, “What is that system within those entities that we need to improve?” The approach and tactics utilized will look different whether you’re trying to recover from muscle soreness or mental fatigue.
When understanding how to know what is actually required [in terms of recovery], the easiest thing to do is to effectively try and articulate how you feel: what are your symptoms? How are you feeling? Are you feeling tired from a lethargy perspective or just general fatigue? Do you have muscle soreness? Do you have symptoms of mental fatigue? I think that’s the gateway to having a better understanding in order to improve performance via accelerated recovery.
If you need to perform the next day or in a short period of time in a way that places significant stress on the body, Dr. Thorpe notes recovery will be the most important thing. However, for the general population, it’s more likely your focus should actually be on trying to adapt to post workout stress versus focusing on recovery. This is where those so-called “gains” occur. In other words, this adaptation is what allows someone, for example, to increase their weights in a certain exercise every few weeks. Their body is adapting to the stress.
Robin Thorpe wearing the Reign Midweight Hoodie
According to Dr. Thorpe, physical stress on the body can fall under two categories: mechanical/ structural damage, and metabolic fatigue. “All of those types of movements and contractions,” Dr. Thorpe says, “create little breaks in between the muscle fibers. That damage occurs due to the continual contraction of the muscles–they’ve broken and lost their integral properties.” When the body experiences structural damage, the muscle fibers in the body have undergone micro-traumas, which then need time to heal and regenerate - think muscle soreness after a heavy lift in the gym. Conversely, when the body experiences metabolic fatigue, we’re looking at a heavier use on the aerobic system - think cardio.
When considering the difference between structural damage and metabolic fatigue, Dr. Thorpe notes that the best place to start is by considering what exercise you’re trying to recover from.
So, how do you know if you’re experiencing structural damage? For the general population, it’s simple: muscle soreness. “If you feel sore muscles, you probably know that you’ve either damaged the muscle by contraction or you potentially have a blow to the muscle.” When considering the other side of the coin, metabolic fatigue, Dr. Thorpe highlights aerobic exercise as the main stressor. When engaging in aerobic exercise, not only does our heart beat faster, but our lungs are working harder to deliver oxygen to our muscles which can create that feeling of lethargy, not to mention that burn in the lungs as it gets a bit harder to breath.
Robin Thorpe wearing the Essentials Training Tee
At this point, we’ve focused solely on recovery from physical exertion but what about the cognitive component? Dr. Thorpe says that all of the information athletes may be taking in and digesting off the field can be cause for mental overload. The brain requires energy, and if you’re over utilizing that aspect of performance, it's natural that it would become depleted. Another component to consider? Sleep. Dr. Thorpe recalls, “We know that if you get inadequate sleep or there's poor sleep quality over a number of nights, cognitive function is down, reaction time is down, alertness is down, and concentration is down.”
Sleep and nutrition are your two kings–ticking the box from a mental perspective. If we’re able to concentrate, it means we have adequate sleep and optimal nutrition, making our mental fatigue low and manageable.
Really, when we think of recovery, it’s a cyclical relationship. Your mental recovery can affect your physical recovery and vice versa. For example, if you’re experiencing mental fatigue from stress you’re dealing with in your personal life, that may reduce your ability to make decisions in a game, or slow your reaction time during a workout. This causes your body to work even harder physically as it tries to counteract that lack of cognitive function. This concept also applies to experiencing poor sleep.
Cooling & Heating: Physiological Changes
It’s no secret that when you plunge into an ice bath or hop into a sauna you can feel the effects almost immediately. You experience that feeling of reduction or expansion–depending on which tactic you’re utilizing. That being said, what’s really going on from a physiological standpoint when we apply these techniques?
If you cool, using any method, as soon as the skin detects a change in temperature, there’s a cascade of mechanisms. What happens is, you get the conduction of a reduction in temperature to the peripheral muscle and then the deep muscle. It’s also likely that you’ll experience a reduction in metabolism which means that all the metabolic functions of the muscle cells start to slow down and the transportation of blood starts to be reduced, directed towards the core to maintain the function of the more critical organs.
To put it simply, once our muscles are damaged mechanically through what we do, the immune system sends a secondary damage phase to the muscle. This allows us not only to adapt and to get more fit, we’re also having a greater effect in terms of repair–yet it’s still additional damage. According to Dr. Thorpe, cooling helps recovery by reducing the impact of the secondary damage phase.
Cooling also has an effect on the vagus nerve, responsible for controlling our nervous system. Consider our “fight or flight” modes. “Fight” is the activated sympathetic nervous system–we’re ready to perform and take on strain, whereas “flight” is the activated parasympathetic nervous system, which can be thought of as our state of rest. “What cooling can do here,” notes Thorpe, “is push us into a more parasympathetic state. Which has also shown to indirectly improve sleep.” Similarly, heating has also been shown to have a positive impact on sleep. “When we sleep, we have a change in blood distribution throughout the body and our body cools down,” says Thorpe, “when you have a hot shower before bed [within a 30 minute window], you’re facilitating that cooling process by sending heat away from the core.”
So, let's talk about heating. To define heat from a recovery standpoint, Dr. Thorpe notes that it affects gene-expression and cellular-based DNA changes in muscle cells by resynthesizing blood at a faster rate, as well as moving blood quicker around the body, in addition to improving various metabolic pathways.
Practical framework to enhance recovery in athletes from Thorpe (2021) Post-Exercise Recovery: Cooling & Heating, a Periodized Approach.
WHICH MODALITY TO USE
The question still remains: how does one determine which recovery technique to utilize to optimize their recovery and thus performance?
Naturally, let’s consider a soccer player. If they’re experiencing soreness in their hamstrings and they have a game within the next three days, we know there is likely some mechanical damage. In this case, Thorpe notes the athlete should utilize cooling right away. On the other hand, if the same athlete is experiencing soreness but doesn’t have to perform for a week, they may want to consider allowing their body to recover naturally and potentially even adapt more from that stress.
We can also consider what approach this same athlete might take in this scenario, given a lack of soreness, but feelings of heavy legs or a bit of lethargy–signs of metabolic fatigue. What can this athlete do? Dr. Thorpe says, “Heating or unloaded active recovery where we’re trying to recirculate acidic metabolites within the blood is the approach the athlete would want to take here.” In other words, hop on the bike, head to the pool for some laps or throw on the NormaTech boots. Don’t forget about that hot shower or sauna.
FUNDAMENTALS OF RECOVERY
TLDR: Heating and cooling are top dogs when it comes to methods to utilize for recovery. But what other factors should be considered when looking at recovery holistically? Remember that sleep, both high-quality sleep, as well as getting enough and nutrition are the two kings of recovery. Both of these can have a huge impact on cognitive function and physical performance.
When you consider trying to build out a framework to optimize recovery, keep this in mind from the desk of Dr. Thorpe: “If you cool during the day and then heat just before you go to bed, from a temperature-based approach, that could be your gold-standard of trying to improve sleep. And that’s for anyone, not just athletes.”
And the thing is, you don’t need the latest technology or tools to implement these tried and true recovery techniques. A makeshift ice bath at home or even a bath sans ice, a steamy hot shower–you’ll still receive some level of the effect from both therapies. Ready to drive down the road to better recovery? I know I am.