Peter Tierney is a Senior Researcher and Health & Performance Coach. He is currently working at lululemon, and prior to this spent a number of years working as a physical performance coach and sports scientist at Leinster Rugby in Ireland, and The Football Association in England. He has a PhD in sports science, a ProfDip in Data Analytics, a research MSc in GPS technology and his undergraduate BSc program was in health & performance science.
In this excellent piece, he shares his valuable insight for navigating the recovery process and how to focus on doing the most impactful things consistently well.
Where to Start
The first 2 questions you might (or maybe should) ask yourself when it comes to recovery are:
1) What am I recovering from?
2) When am I aiming to recover for?
The questions remain the same, but sometimes the answer is more straight forward: “I played a game on Saturday, and I am trying to recover for training on Monday”. Other times, it is far more complex: “I tore my ACL yesterday. My surgeon and physiotherapist suggest that it will take me 9 months to recover.”
However, I strongly believe the principles remain the same. These questions can help ground you in what is essential, help you focus your attention and energy on those most important things, and help you prioritise the strategies needed to support and accelerate your recovery.
Recovery from Training / Competition
I’ve developed an easy to interpret graphic (with input from a lot of other people) which I often use as a starting place to try simplify the thought process around recovery (not from injury).
Recovery is complex, but that doesn’t mean that your approach has to be complex. As an athlete (amateur or professional), you should aim to address the most beneficial things first (green) and largely avoid the harmful choices (red) in excess.
Often, with marketing and social media, people are tempted to start in the middle with expensive devices, without first addressing the most important and beneficial things.
This isn’t to say these tools aren’t useful – they do have their time and place – but they are secondary to what I refer to as the ‘big rocks’.
Sleep for Recovery
We all know (or hopefully know) the importance of sleep for overall health and also specifically for recovery. It’s a topic from the above graphic that I have also built out more specifically. My recommendation for sleep would also be to start addressing the items at either end of this list (i.e., focus on the aspects that have the greatest contribution to sleep – either positive or negative – and be consistent with these) and then work your way inwards if you need to.
What you’ll start to see from these visuals – and what I’m writing – is that my approach to recovery is focused very much on the key contributors and the most impactful things done well over a long period of time. I truly believe this approach will have the greatest impact on your recovery and health in the long run.
Recovery from Injury
From my experience working with people, recovery from injury can be one of the most challenging periods to navigate – but also one of the most rewarding. Injury can often provide a necessary period of time to address other weaknesses. Maybe it’s that lack of flexibility you have always needs to improve, but never given the time to. Maybe you have never got on top of your nutrition because you needed to develop the skills needed to prepare your own food. If you reframe a period of injury, it can be a powerful tool.
From time of injury to return to play – people often have the expectation that this is a smooth, linear process. For the most part, in any rehabilitation process from injury this is not the case.
This figure might be a useful reference if you are injured, know someone who is struggling through injury – or for you if you pick an injury up in the future. Hopefully this can help you set realistic expectations returning from injury.
Physical & Psychological
Recovery from injury and the journey through rehabilitation is both mental and physical. I appreciate when people describe the two – but that is not to say it is an either or. Here is an example of how I believe the two aspects can influence each other:
People that I have worked with often struggle to regain confidence in their abilities coming back from injury. Sometimes, the key to unlocking that confidence and improving their mentality is through physical improvements;
Demonstrating through data that an injured leg is the same strength as the non-injured leg.
Providing feedback that someone is running faster than they have pre-injury.
Showing that an athlete’s body composition is the same pre- and post-injury.
These can all be huge psychological and moral boosters, whilst there are also physical benefits to these too. If you are injured, consider assessing some physical, objective data. You might be surprised how strong you are now!
Long-term Physical Development & Maturity
I’m going to describe an example of an injury which at the time was concerning and almost potentially career-ending, but was turned into a career-making injury.
This athlete was young and had some injuries which kept them out of their sport for an extended period of time (for almost 6 months). At the time of injury, the athlete was immensely concerned with their future in the sport, and also their overall health. The athlete also was not at a professional level yet, and was by no means a guaranteed best-in-class in their sport. The injury period took them out of all sport-training and performance, however they were allowed to complete strength and conditioning work as guided by performance coaches and medical staff.
Having returned to sport almost 6 months later, this athlete went on to become a senior professional athlete, competing and thriving at the highest level. They, and their coaches refer to this period as career-defining, suggesting that without a dedicated period of athletic development, this athlete may not have reached the heights they are now competing at!
It takes a lot of patience and maturity to zoom out and see the bigger and longer picture during a difficult time like an injury, but the benefits can literally be career-defining and enhancing. Your mindset during these times will stand to you.
One of the biggest difficulties athletes face is that they are “always on”. Training, competition, recovery – even sponsorship and media responsibilities for professional athletes require a lot of time and energy. Sometimes an injury offers a brief (or extended) period to allow you to recharge. If you do feel anxious about having time off doing nothing – maybe that’s a sign that it is very much needed!
If you are looking to take a few key points away – please let it be these:
1. Always ask yourself the questions:
What am I recovering from?
When am I aiming to recover for?
2. Focus on consistently doing the most important things well.
Stress / load management
3. For sleep, aim to address the things that have the largest impact:
Positive: consistency, environment, physical activity
Negative: alcohol, travel, stress, late caffeine
4. Set realistic expectations returning from injury
The path will have highs and lows, and might not be straightforward.
Allow yourself time to recharge
Use physical improvements to support your confidence, and allow your confidence to push yourself physically.
5. Can you turn your recovery into your point of difference?
If this is from sessions, can you recover better and faster than your competitors?
If this is from injury, can you come back a better person and athlete? Target physical, psychological and skill improvements.
Thank you Peter for this incredibly insightful piece that offers huge value for anyone managing recovery! If you'd like to follow more from Peter you can access his social channels and more great content here.
If you're recovering from an injury and would like to access a supportive community during the process, alongside your exercise tracking and management, you can download the free Brace app from our home page to take control of the recovery journey in an empowering and connected way!