Q: I work with high-level athletes. How can I best help them recover from competition?
A: This is an excellent question. I think the answer depends on a few factors. What is the athlete recovering from? What was involved? Did the athlete use just the arms or just the legs? Was it endurance-based or a power event? Recovering from a basketball game and recovering from a triathlon are two very different things that will require different amounts of recovery. Furthermore, you need to know how long it has been since the event took place. Was it the night before the session? A week? Two weeks?
I will provide a generalized answer that will benefit most athletes regardless of the athletic event they are recovering from. For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume it is the day after the event and that it was an endurance running event. I will also assume a very athletic posture. By this I mean, anterior tilted pelvis, flat thoracic spine, slightly forward head and bilateral rib cage flare.
Start with the Breath
It’s a very simple idea, but one that often gets overlooked, even though it’s one of the STOTT PILATES® Five Basic Principles. We assume too much about the correctness of a client’s respiratory pattern, so breathing should be one of the major focal points of the session. I am going to assume that accessory muscles were used in addition to the diaphragm to facilitate inspiration. I will also assume that accessory muscles were used to force respiration (i.e. abdominals more involved in breathing). Remember, at rest you really shouldn’t have any muscles that help you exhale. It should be rather passive. When under duress (i.e. an athletic event) individuals need to use other more muscles to help inhale (scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, etc.) and will use the abdominals to help with forced respiration (transversus abdominis, obliques, rectus abdominis). Furthermore, many times during events, athletes will take big inhales (for oxygen), with very shallow exhales.
I work with Olympic swimmers and this is especially the case with athletes who compete in events such as the 50-meter freestyle. Often, what you will find in these individuals are exaggerated bilateral rib flaring and very flat thoracic spines, often with an excessive lumbar lordosis. This is their normal posture type (athletes love to use their global back muscles in general) but it often becomes exaggerated after an event. I recommend putting the athlete in a supine position with a rolled-up towel or wedge under the sacrum. In addition, put their feet under a pad (I use a Platform Extender against the Jumpboard), on the wall, or “ledge” of the Jumpboard. Have them focus on relaxing all their posterior muscles, directing their inhales posterior-laterally with very long exaggerated exhales (to relax the diaphragm). We want them to increase posterior upper rib cage expansion (pump handle) and lower lateral rib cage expansion (bucket handle). Watch to make sure that the ribs and stomach are moving together on the inhales and exhales. Sometimes you will see paradoxical breathing patterns where only the ribs move or only the stomach moves. Helping them relax with proprioceptive feedback (i.e. red/green/blue Mini Stability Balls™ with the Flex-Band® Exerciser will help.
Have them exhale for a long period of time. You might choose to use a balloon to help facilitate this at first, as breathing into a balloon is an excellent way to stimulate the transversus abdominis/internal oblique. I have some preliminary data right now on a project I am working on that shows exhaling into a balloon will help facilitate utilizing more of your lungs. Exhaling deeply will help the diaphragm relax and will help stimulate deep abdominal recruitment. This is very important if the diaphragm has been used as a postural muscle as a result of competition and will help to turn it back into a respiratory muscle at rest (remember athletes love to use their backs and if the diaphragm doesn’t relax properly it will definitely start to support posture given its attachments to the thoracic and lumbar spine.
Inhibit, inhibit, inhibit!
The best part about Pilates is that it is a true inhibitory exercise method. Relaxing the diaphragm as mentioned above is certainly part of this section as well. What I mean by Pilates being a “true inhibitory exercise method” is that Pilates is much more about turning muscles “off” rather than turning them “on.”
Using cues such as “relax this” rather than “fire that” is much more effective in recovery. For example, athletes love to use the quadriceps and the hip flexors. After a gentle warm-up, have them go through the Feet in Straps series. Be careful of your cues. Instead of saying “lift your legs up and press down,” try “release the back of your legs to allow the straps to bring your legs up without using the front of your hips and then gently reach your legs away from you as you imagine exhaling from your pubic bone (transversus abdominis cue).”
Short Spine is an amazing exercise for recovery because it really helps relax the body while keeping it mobile. Stay away from working in a supine position with the legs unsupported in the air or very intense exercises such as the Long Stretch. You also may want to have them start exercises in a posterior tilt to help protect the low back.
Be sensitive to the fact that they may be experiencing a lot of muscle soreness. I would encourage you to be careful about asking them to compress tissue that is trying to recover, for example, heavy bouts of foam rolling. It might be great for them to use compression boots that help facilitate blood flow from the lower extremities back to the heart to promote recovery. If you are a nutritionist, or are qualified to make a nutritional recovery recommendation, you might suggest that they drink tart cherry or pomegranate juice post-competition. We have looked at the benefits of this post-exercise and it really does help with muscle soreness. Also making sure they are getting enough protein after an event is beneficial.