Why I think recovery modalities and post-performance nutrition carry so much potential in sport

In revising the literature on acute caffeine supplementation in live elite team sport match-play for my thesis I have had the chance to reflect on many things related to the sports performance practice. One of them is the promising and high potential space of post-performance nutrition and recovery modalities, for both sports physiology/ nutrition research and the athletic performance practice. Precisely, recovery and post-performance nutrition provide a crucial gap in knowledge to investigate, as they can serve to enhance multiple outcomes for athletes, especially in team-sports.

Over the years much of the sports nutrition literature has focused on enhancing performance directly, as has much of the strength and conditioning literature, and less so has focused on recovery from the events. This is crucial because it is very hard, in fact a big leap of faith in my opinion, to conclude that a pre-performance intervention (e.g., an acute physical training or nutritional strategy) enhances sports performance, because the demands and the nature of different sports (e.g., individual vs team), team-sports (e.g., invasion vs contact) and even within a sport (e.g., a highly physical vs a less physical [more tactical] match) in different circumstances are very variable. Further, improvements in one outcome (e.g., increased physicality) could even be at an expense of other outcomes (e.g., decreased precision), so what is the net effect on performance? This is probably one of the reasons we have struggled to replicate research findings in team-sports even for supplements like caffeine, which comprises some of the most well-understood mechanisms and effects among experts in sports physiology. One of my inferences from revising the literature is that the complex nature of team-sports (along with study heterogeneity) is responsible for much of the variable findings in acute caffeine ingestion literature in elite team-sport match-play. This is probably also the case in many s&c-related topics such as the transfer of weight room measures (e.g., barbell velocities) to field performances.

On the contrary, the recovery period provides a more controllable and predictable environment. That is, that the baseline point in the recovery period (i.e., immediately following high-level training or competition) is very similar across team sports, even though the way they got there is very different. For example, following high-level competition in most (if not all) team-sports, almost surely muscle glycogen will be low or depleted, there will be some muscle damage, high sympathetic nervous system activity and likely some level of psychological/ cognitive stress. Further, the demands/ stimuli exerted on the athlete during the recovery period are predictable and controllable, unlike in competition. By investigating strategies to implement in this recovery period that address these baseline parameters I mentioned (e.g., speeding rates of muscle glycogen repletion, reducing soreness, increasing muscle protein synthesis, improving sleep, downregulating the stress response) it is highly likely that subsequent performance outcomes will be improved (less of a leap of faith). Or at least subsequent performances may be safeguarded better than by not doing anything (whereas in some pre and during performance interventions, not doing anything would have probably been better). Also, being able to enhance these recovery outcomes is likely positive for all sports and situations, so maybe our focus should be there: “controlling the controllables” and engineering an environment where the athlete is likely to thrive in. In my opinion, this is a better causality model too, and future research in this space may lead to strategies that will be more likely to yield replicable data.

Thanks for taking the time to read.


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