Performance recovery at the Australian Institute of Sport
Performance Recovery at the Australian Institute of Sport by Dr Jodi Richardson
Performance recovery at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) is provided on a day-to-day basis for non-injured athletes to enhance their ability to train daily and give them strategies they can use in competition. Performance recovery is an emerging speciality of high-performance sport, which now represents a significant aspect of an elite athlete’s training plan.
In 2002, Recovery was a division of the AIS Physiology Department with a staff of one. Now Performance Recovery at the AIS has grown to become a discipline in its own right with six staff.
Each Recovery Physiologist is responsible for servicing athletes from five to eight sports and engaging in their research areas within the Recovery discipline. Evidence-based recovery programs are designed to assist athletes with treatment from physiological stressors associated with training and performance including inflammation, soreness, energy-substrate depletion, oxidative stress, nervous system fatigue, muscle damage and high-core temperatures.
The founding member of Performance Recovery and now its Head of Department, Dr. Shona Halson, began at the AIS in 2002. During her PhD she specialised in overtraining, particularly fatigue, investigating hormonal responses to overtraining and overreaching as well as carbohydrate metabolism, performance and mood changes. Her work at the AIS centres on recovery which is essential for athletes when high levels of fatigue are present.
Dr. Halson explains why Australia is one of the leaders in Performance Recovery.
’As athletes train harder and harder and place more demands on their body and their mind, we need to help them to continue to train at a high level, to minimise excessive fatigue and injury; and to ensure that when they compete they have as low levels of fatigue as possible,’ Dr Halson said.
‘Many other countries view it as recovery from injury, the AIS does that as well in terms of our Physical Therapies Department, but we look at its application from day-to-day training and between events during competition, which is very different”.
The AIS Recovery Centre opened in 2006 and demand for these services continues to increase. Each programmed recovery session is supervised and tailored dependent on environmental conditions, type of athlete and how fatigued the athlete is.
The key recovery strategies are: hydrotherapy, sleep optimisation and compression. These are also the areas in which most of the Recovery department’s research is focussed. Dr. Halson emphasises the importance of research in this new area of high-performance sport to ensure that they can best understand how to apply these strategies using new and improved protocols.
Part of the Recovery Centre research focuses on mechanisms underlying why hydrotherapy is an effective component of athlete recovery. The main techniques used in hydrotherapy are cold water immersion and contrast water therapy, which alternates hot and cold water immersion. Dr. Halson and her colleagues assess how hydrotherapy affects an athlete’s core, skin and muscle temperature, blood flow, hormonal responses and mood responses. Through their research they are also developing sports-specific hydrotherapy protocols.
Dr. Halson considers the guidelines and education provided for athletes around sleep to be their best recovery strategy, yet, despite its importance, there is limited objective research on sleep and elite athletes. In collaboration with the University of South Australia Centre for Sleep Research, a number of sleep studies with AIS athletes are being conducted. Sleep guidelines are tailored to each athlete (based on their individual research data).
The use of compression garments is another area of research in Performance Recovery. Partnering in research and development with 2XU (who supply garments for athletes), Dr. Halson reports that there can be positive physiological, perceptual and performance effects of compression for recovery.
Dr Halson says though recovery practices have been used for centuries, it is only in the last five to six years that it has become more evidence-based. ‘As our knowledge increases and uptake of recovery by coaches increases, there has been a natural progression for recovery as a discipline,’ Dr Halson said. ‘The scientific backing, the development of facilities and implementing recovery as a more structured and formal as part of an athlete’s training program have all helped the rise of recovery.’
An evidence based approach for some of the recovery practices is a significant development in this discipline. Further to this, being able to assist athletes in getting good sleep is the next focus for the recovery at the AIS. It is understood that athletes who don’t have good sleep are more prone to illness and potentially becoming overreached. Reduced or poor quality sleep can especially affect athletes from sports requiring high levels of cognition, such as team sports, where reaction time is important and athletes need to strategise and anticipate.
The Performance Recovery Centre at the AIS is an essential component of an athlete’s training regime, but it is just as important for athletes to have access to these resources when they are competing. To that end, Dr. Halson and her colleagues plan to establish a recovery centre for Australian athletes competing at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The recovery centre will provide hydrotherapy, massage, active recovery and stretching areas, nutritional and psychological services to athletes.
The next Olympic cycle should see exciting developments in Performance Recovery with novel research into recovery and the brain being Dr. Halson’s key area of interest. Important questions she is looking to answer include whether or not the brain can be manipulated to help athletes sleep, and which recovery strategies might change brain state that could improve sleep.
’The brain controls everything and we now have better technology to understand what is happening at a neural level,’ Dr Halson said. I am very interested to see the effects of recovery on brain state.
‘Many athletes feel better when they have done recovery and I am interested to know if these changes can be observed in the brain.’
As Dr. Halson and her team are gaining an insight into sleep, recovery and brain functioning, development and implementation of these additional cutting-edge recommendations will serve to further enhance the physiological and psychological restoration of our athletes.
The Australian Institute of Sport will be hosting the inaugural AIS Performance Recovery Symposium from 12 to 13 December, 2011. Speakers from the AIS and external experts will discuss recovery strategies around sleep, travel, hydrotherapy, nutrition, physiology, psychology, compression, monitoring, and athletes with a disability.
View more information about the AIS Performance Recovery Symposium.