Balancing Sports Training & Recovery

By Jules Kirkpatrick, MS

As sports seasons commence and homework loads start to pile, female athletes are placed under massive amounts of stress.

Although some of the stressors are out of her control, there are 3 main factors she can manage that DIRECTLY influence how well she performs, recovers, and improves this season.

Read on to find out:

With the blink of an eye, summer is over, it’s getting dark outside at 7 PM, and the back to school shopping is long over. Now, it’s early morning wake-ups, sports practice after school, games, tournaments, traveling, homework, and lifting thrown in here and there.

Parents – does this situation sound familiar to you: a tired daughter impossible to get out of bed in the morning, exhausted after sports practices, and maybe some (if you’re lucky) conversations about their life?

Coaches— how about this: your athletes look STRONG at the beginning of their game, but consistently lose their mojo by the second half?

Athletes— does this sound familiar: tired ALL DAY regardless of how much sleep you get, and no time for ANYTHING outside of school & practice?

Let’s face it: stress is at an all-time high and recovery is suffering. This is a HUGE problem when performance on the field or court (and classroom) depends DIRECTLY on how well the athlete can recover from these stressors!



A hot chocolate is representative of the essential factors that contribute significantly to the female athlete’s stress & recovery.


Think of all of the things on a female athlete’s schedule this week in the context of a hot chocolate:

1.     TOP: whipped cream baby!  - unmodifiable factors

2.     BOTTOM: warm chocolate goodness!   - modifiable factors

You see not everything in her cup is equal: hot chocolate just wouldn’t be the same if it were half whipped cream and half the warm chocolatey milk part – right? And we all know hot chocolate made with water is definitely NOT the same compared to when it is made with milk. In the context of balancing school, sports, homework, lifting, games, nutrition – not all factors contribute equally.


Let’s look a little deeper on what is currently filling this cup.


Modifiable vs. Non-Modifiable Lifestyle Factors

Non-Modifiable Lifestyle Factors

These are factors that are simply out of the female athlete’s control. Think of these as the whipped cream on her cup.

These factors include:

·       What time school starts

·       What time sports practice is

·       Where games and tournaments are played

·       If the weather goes haywire and practice is canceled

·       What time the weight lifting gym is open

… and the list goes on.


The main takeaway is to remember that these variables are here to stay, and most likely out of her control to change. BUT how these factors impact the female athlete must be taken into account.

Think of it this way, the more whip cream on top, the larger the cup of hot chocolate underneath it has to be.


Modifiable Lifestyle Factors

These are factors that are IN HER CONTROL.

Think variables just as:

·       Sleep

·       Nutrition

·       Training outside of sports practice (lifting, extra running or conditioning, how many sports she plays)


Let’s think about the original goal: TO MAXIMIZE PERFORMANCE we must MAXIMIZE RECOVERY!  

Or in terms of her cup, the more whipped cream she wants, the more hot chocolate she needs.

In order to maximize recovery, it’s important to identify what is in the athlete’s control and what isn’t. From there, we can begin to fill her cup with the right ratio of hot chocolate to whip cream.



Sleep is equivalent to the chocolatey goodness of our hot chocolate; sleep provides us with energy for the day and keeps our bodies alive!

Just like chocolate is the KEY ingredient for our hot chocolate, sleep is the MOST important factor for recovery that the female athlete is in control of! While sleep is KING for everyone, sleep is especially important for athletes due to their increased recovery demand from training.


Sleep demands for athletes are higher than non-athletes [1]! For adolescent female athletes, this demand is even higher! During this time, her body is growing and changing every day. These changes are stressful and require ample amount of recovery. Add on rigorous training demands (think daily practices after school, games, & tournaments on the weekends) on top of schoolwork & social lives, and the amount of stress placed on her body can seem astronomical.

Keep in mind, an athlete NEEDS stress to drive her body to improve & perform (obviously she won’t improve her soccer game without multiple hours of practice each week!!) However, improvements ONLY occur when there is sufficient time for repair, recovery, and adaptation. Many adaptive processes are both physical and neurological. Remember, sports are a SKILL that requires both physical and mental recovery.

High training volumes during sports seasons often go hand in hand with irregular schedules, late-night games, and early wakeup calls. BUT skipping a few hours of sleep in favor of staying up later to study WILL have disastrous effects for the female athlete.

Compounded over time, sleep deprivation has been associated with [1,2,6]:

·       Irritability, poorer mood, decreased motivation to train

·       Increased injury risk

·       Decreased recovery (muscle degradation)

·       Increased risk of overtraining

·       Reduced reaction time, fine motor skills and memory

·       Impaired decision-making ability


During busy sports seasons, creating a regular sleep schedule is challenging but must be prioritized. Adolescent females shoot aim to sleep 8-11 hours per night to ensure their body receives the recovery time it needs. Even more, if the opportunity arises for a power nap, early bedtime, or a few extra hours on the weekend, it’s very likely to be beneficial. [2] While she can’t ‘make up’ for lost sleep, it is wise to provide an opportunity for extra recovery time when needed.



How useful is hot chocolate if there are just chocolate and no liquid?

Answer: It’s not!

To make a delicious cup of hot chocolate, you need both the chocolate and the liquid.

To develop a high performing female athlete this season, she needs both SLEEP & proper NUTRITION.

BUT just as all hot chocolates are NOT created equal (think WATER vs MILK), not all food is created “equal” when considering the female athlete’s recovery.

For the female athlete, how much she eats and what she is eating determines how well she recovers from the stress placed upon her this season.

Consider what the fall sports season looks like in full swing: multiple hours of practice per day, games, weekend tournaments, and lifting - female athletes expend A TON of energy. And for the adolescent female, she expends EVEN MORE when you consider the energy needs for GROWTH & DEVELOPMENT.


For many female athletes, her schedule may be so busy she ends up skipping a meal or going 5+ hours without a meal.


For female athletes, not enough raw materials to fuel the processes needed for high performance & recovery can lead to [3,4,7]:

·       Overtraining

·       Increased injury risk

·       Decreased immune function

·       Menstrual irregularities

·       Low energy and worsened sports performance

·       Muscle loss and poorer body composition

·       Increased time needed for recovery


As the saying goes: fail to plan, plan to fail!  While it’s not always easy to manage nutrition while on the go, it must be a priority for female athletes.

If you need extra help in figuring out how much to eat & picking the best fuel sources based on your athlete’s individual needs & training goals, consider our:

·       eBook

·       Individualized nutrition templates

·       One-on-one nutrition assessment



Now I know what you might be thinking: what about training? That’s the coach’s job!” That’s absolutely true. However, what about the training OUTSIDE of her primary sport. schedule

This might include extra training sessions such as strength training, outside club/travel teams, or secondary sports.

It’s all too often we hear in the same conversation: “Well, Anne plays soccer for her high school, travel team, and also wants to pick up track!” then a few minutes later, “Anne is always looks exhausted during the week and sometimes it affects her soccer play, what can I do?”  


While it IS fantastic for athletes to be involved in many activities, there’s only so much that can fit into the female athlete’s cup!

When an athletes’ schedule gets too busy, naturally, something has to go. Often times that ‘something’ is lifting. This is understandable given that most athletes’ primary sport isn’t weightlifting.


Does this mean that you should stop in season?


Short answer: No way!

Lifting weights during your sports season is a MUST. Sports seasons often involve high volumes of training that are intense and by the end of, you just feel DONE. However, the end of the season is usually the MOST important!

While sports seasons vary in length, they are usually multiple months. Unfortunately, this is too long to forgo weight training without losing muscle tissue - not a great situation as muscle tissue has a direct positive effect on muscle strength, power, force production, AND injury risks! [5]. These factors all factor into those fast sprints down the field, hard throws, layups on court, and the amount of wear and tear her body can handle each game!


Think of lean tissue as premium fuel for a car. Premium gas means the most efficient level of functioning. While you CAN go an entire sports season without lifting weights, the deterioration of lean tissue will leave you in a LESS prepared physical state than where you were at the BEGINNING of a season.

A less prepared state means POORER performance from the beginning of the season and a HIGHER chance of injury!!!


Strength training is the gas pump for premium fuel. While some muscle tissue may be lost during the sports season, female athletes will retain better performance characteristics & reduced injury rates by following a maintenance strength training program during their sport season.



There are certain factors that MUST be prioritized when managing the female athlete’s recovery in an attempt to drive improvements in sports performance.

Although she cannot control factors such as her sports schedule, school hours, or homework load, she can control factors that directly influence her performance, injury risks, & recovery such as



*training load

Just as the more whip cream you add to a cup, the larger the cup of hot chocolate underneath it has to be; the more stress placed on an athlete this season MUST BE MATCHED with the recovery to support it.


1.     Bonnar, D., Bartel, K., Kakoschke, N., & Lang, C. (2018). Sleep Interventions Designed to Improve Athletic Performance and Recovery: A Systematic Review of Current Approaches. Sports Medicine, 48(3), 683–703.

2.     Fullagar, H. H., Skorski, S., Duffield, R., Hammes, D., Coutts, A. J., & Meyer, T. (2015). Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Loss on Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise. Sports Medicine; Auckland, 45(2), 161–186. 

3.     Halson, S. L. (2008). Nutrition, sleep and recovery. European Journal of Sport Science, 8(2), 119–126.

4.     Jeukendrup, A., & Gleeson, M. (2019). Sports Nutrition (Third Edition). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics

5.     Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2001). Muscular characteristics of detraining in humans: Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 33(8), 1297–1303.

6.     Sawczuk, T., Jones, B., Scantlebury, S., & Till, K. (2018). The influence of training load, exposure to match play and sleep duration on daily wellbeing measures in youth athletes. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(21), 2431–2437.

7.     Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(3), 501–528.


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Julia holds a M.S. in Sports Science and Coach Education from East Tennessee State University and a B.S. in Kinesiology with a concentration in Exercise Science from Temple University. During her time at ETSU, Julia worked as the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Women’s D1 Volleyball team and headed their sports nutrition. She also worked as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at a local college in Tennessee for their Track & Field team.

Julia’s main passion is bringing an evidence-based approach to training and nutrition practice. Her time spent around collegiate athletes highlighted the gap between real-world practice/understanding and science; enter Relentless Athletics. After working with a variety of athletes and online diet clients, Julia knew there was a hole that needed to be filled – specifically for females. She saw that there was an absence of reliable sources for these individuals to gather information to help develop their athletic ability. Relentless offered the perfect community for Julia to spread her knowledge and help build STRONG foundations for females through nutrition education and training.

In her free time, Julia competes in powerlifting and weightlifter recreationally. She holds the Pennsylvania Junior State Record in the bench press in the 72 kg weight class.