RECOVERY 101 for the Female Athlete

RECOVERY 101 for the Female Athlete

Emily R Pappas, M.S.

When you are in the most intense phase of your training, your muscles get SORE.  You probably feel stiff; you might have some swelling; and your perception of pain and fatigue will be at an all time HIGH.  How well you RECOVER from this type of training will determine how well your body can ADAPT and improve over time.


Active and Passive Recovery Strategies

Your body elicits responses like soreness, stiffness, and swelling for a reason. ACTIVE recovery strategies—ICE Baths, HEAT therapy, or combinations of these— are ideal to help tone these responses down.  BUT, they come at a cost when considering adaptation.  PASSIVE recovery modalities— sleep, relaxation, and nutrition, may not decrease your soreness to the same extent as ACTIVE strategies, but may be a better option when adaptation is your goal!

Active Recovery Strategies

Whether in the form of an ice bath or ice packs, COLD therapy helps you recover through VASOCONSTRICTION, or restricted blood flow to the affected area of the body. This decreases inflammation and perception of pain or fatigue. Less inflammation and fatigue means a faster recovery time. HOWEVER, this comes at a COST:  faster recovery time means a decreased ADAPTIVE POTENTIAL of the training session. This means you don’t get as much out of that training session. This means LESS FITNESS.

Now, let’s look at HEAT therapy. This does the opposite—instead of vasoconstriction, heat influences VASODILATION, or increased blood flow to the affected area. More blood flow means an increase in nutrient uptake and waste removal from that area of your body. While this is regenerative, research has shown ZERO benefit to exercise performance.  AKA, don’t waste your time. 

So what happens if we combine these two? With CONTRAST therapy, you alternate between cold and heat therapy. This forces your body to first constrict, then dilate blood flow. The BENEFIT here is a decrease in pain and swelling, as well as a lesser perception of fatigue. We feel better, so we play better.  However, this comes at a cost in terms of decreased adaptive potential of the training session.

Passive Recovery Strategies

Ok, so if ACTIVE recovery options make you recover FASTER but may decreasing your training’s effectiveness.  

So what about PASSIVE recovery options? In a nutshell, passive recovery strategies are those that happen without a lot of direct action.

  • SLEEP: your goal is CONSISTENCY. When you are asleep, your body regulates its hormones, which allows you to RECOVER and ADAPT from training.

  • RELAXATION: Occasionally, you just need to chill out! When you relax, you manage your stress levels. In doing so, you are automatically regulating your recovery while you are awake.

  • REST DAYS: These are CRITICAL! You don’t do yourself any favors by never taking a break from training. In fact, that’s the quickest way to burn out physically and mentally! You NEED rest to allow your body to recover and adapt from training. Rest days also five your body time to decrease fatigue and perception of pain WITHOUT inhibiting the adaptive potential of your training.

  • ACTIVE REST or EASIER training sessions: If you lessen the workload, your body can decrease fatigue faster. This means more time to hone your skills while you allow your muscles to recover. Think of this as time for your body to catch up to all the intense training you have been doing. You will be able to RECOVER from your previous intense sessions and use the time to hone the finer points of your skill set. Then, when you have another period of intense training, you will come back STRONGER than ever. That’s adaptation.

  • NUTRITION: The final piece of the passive recovery puzzle. Without proper nutrition, there’s no way your body can reach its full potential. Remember, FOOD is FUEL. You need energy to recover. Increasing calories during intense training is ESSENTIAL.

When to Use Active and Passive Recovery Strategies

Although active recovery strategies come at a cost, they do have their time and place! If you are nearing a competition, particularly end-of-season or playoffs, ice baths and contrast therapy will be beneficial to help you keep your performance at top level.  Remember, at this point in your season, you aren’t training to adapt. You are looking to PEAK your performance and these recovery strategies can help you get there. You have already done all the hard work, now you just need to recover faster between competitions to stay at your best!

When you aren’t at the highest point of your competitive play, passive recovery strategies will be the best option.  Nutrition, active or full rest days, sleep, and some R&R may not feel as fancy but they will help make sure you are getting the MOST out of your training sessions.  Remember, the goal of training is PROGRESS and ADAPTATION.  If you want to ensure you are at your TOP LEVEL by the most important stage of your sport, ditch the ice baths and grab a protein shake instead! 


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