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How To Speed Up Recovery Of Tired Legs
In football, muscle soreness in your legs will have a negative impact on your performance both in training and in a game. This means finding effective ways to boost recovery after a heavy leg-training session is essential to keep you performing at your best.
In season, a heavy leg-training session might be in the gym using heavy weights of up to 90 per cent of your 1RM (one rep max) and low reps of around 3 to 5. Compared to lower weight and higher rep sessions, the muscle soreness will be minimal, but it’s crucial to recover fully after each training session so that your legs are fresh for the next game and the potential to pick up injuries is minimised.
Out of season, a heavy leg-training session in the gym will revolve around moderate weights of around 80 per cent of your 1RM but with a much higher volume of reps and sets. For example, this could be 5 sets of 5 reps, creating much greater potential for muscle soreness. As it’s out of season, most coaches factor muscle soreness into a training schedule and fresh legs aren’t needed for a game at the weekend, but it’s still important to boost recovery as much as possible to limit the potential to pick up injuries.
Key point: Muscle soreness is the result of small tears in the muscle fibres after heavy training. The trauma and subsequent healing are part of the natural process of building bigger, stronger muscles, with soreness generally kicking-in around 24 to 48 hours after the session.
Two essential elements of boosting recovery are eating and sleeping. In a nutshell, you need to eat as much as you can (unless you’ve got excess weight concerns) and get as much sleep as you can.
Immediately after a heavy leg-session, drinking half a litre of whole milk will give you an instant supply of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. A recent study compared full-fat to semi-skimmed milk and concluded that full-fat milk is more beneficial in terms of building muscle. Another benefit is that it won’t fill you up too much, and you’ll then be able to eat a balanced meal containing sources of protein, carbohydrates, and moderate amounts of fat (15g) within 30-60 mins after training. Refuelling in this way helps your body to repair the muscle damage caused by heavy training and therefore aids recovery.
The recommendation for a good night’s sleep has always been 8 hours, but the ideal amount is going to be an individual thing. Recovery takes place overnight when the body is resting, so it’s always going to be beneficial to get as much sleep as possible after a heavy training session.
Key point: Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after training can take up to 72 hours to subside. However, recovery will only take this long if you’re not eating well and sleeping well, or if your workload is extremely high.
Ice Baths, Foam Rolling, and Mobilisation
Immediately after a heavy training session, immersing the muscles in ice-cold water of around 15 degrees Celsius or lower for 10 to 15 minutes constricts the blood vessels, helping to reduce inflammation and pain. Once out of the ice, the blood vessels dilate, helping to flush out waste products such as lactic acid.
Many of the claimed benefits of ice baths are yet to be proven scientifically, but there’s strong evidence to support the psychological benefits. Feeling stronger the following day leads to playing stronger the next day.
Key point: Ice baths are only recommended during the season when muscle soreness might limit your performance in an upcoming match. Muscle soreness is not so limiting out of season and some coaches use it to encourage players to adapt and improve. Reducing the inflammation after a training session also reduces the muscle growth and strengthening stimulus, so it becomes counterproductive in this phase of training.
The day after a heavy training session, the hardest-working muscles will feel tight and sore. Foam rolling is essentially a form of self-massage that can help to release tension, improve mobility, and thereby promote recovery.
To use a foam roller on tight hamstrings or calves:
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front.
- Place the foam roller under the affected muscles e.g. hamstrings or calves.
- Place your hands on the floor on either side of your backside, using them to lift your weight from the floor.
- Supporting your weight on your hands, roll back and forth over the affected muscle group.
To use a foam roller on tight glutes:
- Sit with the right-hand side of your backside on a foam roller, using your left foot and right hand on the floor to support your weight and aid your balance.
- Cross your right leg (ankle) over your left thigh.
- Roll back and forth several times and then switch positions to repeat with the left-hand side of your backside on the roller.
Stretching and Mobilisation
After releasing muscle tension with a foam roller, following-up with static stretches will help to regain flexibility in the affected muscle groups. After static stretches, progress to dynamic stretches in the form of movements such as lunges, leg cradles, and deep squats. The purpose of dynamic stretches is to increase the blood flow to the working muscles, tendons and ligaments, and improve the mobility of the joints involved in the movement. Numerous studies have shown that dynamic stretches as part of a warm up routine before taking part in sport can boost performance and help to prevent injuries, and those benefits extend to aiding the recovery of sore muscles in the days after a hard training session.
Key point: If you can stretch comfortably into the bottom of a deep squat, most of the joints and muscles used in football are mobile and flexible enough to help you perform at your best.
Optimising Recovery in Summary
After a heavy leg-training session:
Eat well – whole milk immediately, followed by a balanced meal within an hour to an hour and a half.
Sleep well – ideally 8 hours or more if you need it.
Utilise an ice bath – in season only.
Foam roll and mobilise – the day after a heavy training session, use foam roller exercises followed by static and dynamic stretches to ease tight muscles and promote recovery.