Post-match recovery for team sport athletes

Female hockey players
Author:  Aaron Coutts and Anita Sirotic, School of Leisure, Sport and Tourism, University of Technology, Sydney
Issue: Volume 27 Number 2
Recovery from competition is one aspect of athlete preparation that should receive increased attention from coaches. When recovery from competition is improved, athletes are able to train sooner and with better quality than when either no or inappropriate recovery practices are completed. In this article we will present some basic practices that improve the rate of recovery from matches and allow for better training and game day performance.

What needs recovery?

For athletes, recovery can be defined as the compensation of fatigue and/or decrease in performance (that is, a tendency to stability in the internal environment of the athlete) (Kellmann 2002) . The goal of recovery after competition for team sport athletes should be to restore the body and mind back to pre-game levels in the shortest possible time. During competition, team sport athletes can become fatigued physically, metabolically and mentally. Recovery strategies should focus on reversing or minimising these sources of fatigue.


For athletes who regularly train, any loss of fluid from one session can compromise performance (that is, training quality) in subsequent sessions if fluid replacement is not complete. Research from a variety of team sports shows that fluid losses during match play are usually between 600–1400 mL ×hr -1 (Broad et al. 1996). These values are typically higher when sports are played in hot and humid conditions. As a priority in the recovery process, the goal for athletes in team sports should be to restore whole body fluid balance after exercise. When undertaken correctly, appropriate rehydration will replace the volume of fluid lost during competition and also the electrolytes (mostly sodium) lost in sweat.

The simplest method of achieving this for individuals is to weigh the athletes (nude and towel dried) before and after a match. The loss in body mass during a match should be replaced before the next exercise session. In addition to this amount, extra fluid should be consumed so that urinary losses during this ‘refuelling phase’ are also replenished. Sports drinks are a suitable fluid for recovery, however there are now commercially available recovery drinks that are specifically formulated to supply carbohydrates and proteins.


Team sport athletes can be depleted of their fuel sources during competition (Saltin 1973). Studies have shown that during a soccer match, muscle glycogen stores (the primary fuel for exercise in team sports) are usually depleted up to 75 per cent during a match (Bangsbo 2000). Since carbohydrates are the primary source of energy in training and competition, it is important that these losses are replaced before the next training session. To assist with this goal, the following recommendations are made:

Team sport athletes should consume as much carbohydrate as practical (for example, 1.0–1.2g ×kg -1 BM ×hr -1) as soon as possible after a match.

  • Athletes should choose liquid or solid forms of carbohydrate that are more palatable.
  • Muscle carbohydrate can be replenished either in a large meal or in smaller snacks.
  • Athletes may add some protein with carbohydrates after games to improve post-game muscle carbohydrate resynthesis.
  • Carbohydrates of moderate to high glycaemic index should be consumed during the recovery period (for example, white bread, watermelon, raisins, soft drinks, lollies or sports drinks) (Burke, Kiens and Ivy 2004).

From a practical standpoint, a team approach to carbohydrate and fluid replacement is recommended for recovery immediately after matches. We recommend that athletes consume foods that provide a combination of carbohydrate, protein, vitamins and minerals. With careful organisation, food and fluid replenishment should be an integral part of your team’s recovery strategy after games.

Physiological recovery

High levels of muscle damage occur in team sports. When muscle fibres are damaged they become tender, sore and stiff. This damage is commonly referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS usually appears 24 to 48 hours after games or intense exercise. In an attempt to reduce DOMS, many sporting teams commonly complete the post-match active recovery session. The value of these sessions is yet to be determined scientifically, however their popularity and continued use suggests that athletes and coaches consider them important in the recovery process. The most common activities for recovery sessions are low-intensity swimming, walking and cycling. Quite often these recovery sessions are completed in a pool or at the beach. It is believed that these ‘active recovery’ sessions increase the removal of metabolic waste products such as lactate, hydrogen ions and potassium that are produced during team sport match play. Accelerating the removal of these metabolites may reduce post-match recovery time.

Well-known Australian recovery expert, Angie Calder (2000), suggests that active recovery also assists with increasing blood supply to the fatigued muscle in addition to assisting neurological (nervous system) recovery. A potential problem with completing active recovery is that the effects of exercising after a hard training session or match are sometimes psychologically demanding and athletes can find it a chore to complete. Additionally, this type of recovery practice also demands extra energy use and therefore could possibly further reduce the carbohydrate stores in the muscle. In fact, one study has reported that active recovery may delay muscle glycogen replenishment after high-intensity activity (Choi et al. 1994). Future research still needs to be conducted to determine the efficacy of these methods of recovery.

A viable alternative for recovery activities for team sport athletes are contrast immersion (hot–cold), cold treatment and/or water massage (Cochrane 2004). Research suggests that these methods may improve recovery after matches by reducing the initial stages of injury/micro injury, stimulate blood flow (heat treatment) and also reduce swelling (cold treatment). Although these recovery techniques are not well tested by research, it is thought that the pumping effect of hot–cold treatments assists in removing metabolites and reducing the inflammation and swelling that are common after matches. Other effects such as slowing metabolism and speeding the repair of damaged fibres may also be involved. However, regardless of these mechanisms, these treatments definitely feel good and this benefit alone may assist in the psychological recovery of team sport athletes after a game.

Social recovery

Competition usually represents the end of an arduous training week. Quite often social activities, either completed as a group or individually, can be used to ‘freshen up’ athletes. However, coaches sometimes forget to plan for social recovery. This type of recovery refers to the quality of time spent away from competition and training. Social activities, or other activities that often do not involve sport (for example, movies, comedy, reading, socialising with friends, etc.) can be useful for lifting the moods of athletes (Calder 2000). A recent study completed at the Central Queensland University examined changes in psychological responses to over-reaching (high level of fatigue) in a rugby league team (Coutts 2002). It was interesting to find that when performance was reduced at the end of a heavy training period, players also reported a decrease in the frequency of partaking in social recovery activities. We have also observed similar results with over-reached triathletes (Coutts, Wallance and Slattery 2004). These findings suggest that coaches should allow athletes sufficient time away from training so that social activities can be completed. These social activities may facilitate recovery and therefore improve subsequent training and match performance.

Suggested routine — post-match recovery strategy

Below we have listed basic recovery practices that can be completed by a team participating at any level. This routine has been structured so that the body can be rehydrated, energy stores can be replenished and muscle can be repaired at an improved rate.

1. Start drinking cool carbohydrate/sports drinks immediately on entering the change rooms. This should continue throughout the recovery session.

2. Have carbohydrate-protein snacks readily available for consumption (for example, meal supplement drinks, sports bars, salad and meat sandwiches).

3. Five-minute walk/jog/stretch routine as soon as practical after the players return to the change rooms.

4. Fifteen-minute recovery circuit, alternating between contrast and active groups:

a) contrast: hot shower (37–43 oC)/ice bath (12–15 oC). Hot–cold contrasts should be completed at a ratio of 3:1 (hot:cold)

b) active: bike/walk/stretch at low intensity

c) groups to rotate after approximately six minutes

d) all players finish with a two-minute ice bath (12–15 oC).

5. Have athletes bring food packs for post-match and have them consume this before leaving after a match.

6. Ensure that the post-game meal consists of carbohydrates that have a high glycaemic index.

7. A post-game meal (that is, two to three hours post-game) should consist of high glycaemic index carbohydrates. Some good examples of these dishes are rice dishes, pasta and/or white bread with protein (for example, meat, chicken, etc.).

8. Some athletes have difficulty eating soon after matches, therefore a meal replacement drink (for example, Sustagen or Protein Plus) can be useful.


Competition in team sports usually leaves athletes depleted of carbohydrates, dehydrated, with increased levels of muscle damage and feeling psychologically fatigued. Through careful planning and proper implementation of a simple recovery routine, your athletes can refuel and recover their bodies and minds at an improved rate. Accelerated recovery may allow for improved performance during subsequent training sessions and future games.


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Burke, LM, Kiens, B and Ivy, JL 2004. ‘Carbohydrates and fat for training and recovery,’ Journal of Sports Science, 22:15–30.

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Choi, D, Cole, KJ, Goodpaster, BH, Fink, WJ and Costill, DL 1994. ‘Effect of passive and active recovery on the resynthesis of muscle glycogen,’ Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 26:992–6.

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——, Wallace, L and Slattery, KM 2004. ‘Biochemical and psychological changes during deliberate overreaching in experienced triathletes,’ Australian Association for Exercise and Sports Science Inaugural Conference, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australian Association for Exercise and Sports Scientists.

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