Human Performance, Performance | Apr 28, 2021
James Morton of Science in Sport explains why it is essential to place recovery at the heart of performance delivery.

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As support staff, we cannot directly control what happens on the field of play. However, the recovery window provides an opportunity to genuinely control the controllables and deliver a true performance impact.

By James Morton

Its 5 pm and we have just finished Stage 12 of the Tour de France. Geraint Thomas has just produced a historic victory on Alpe d’Huez, one the most iconic mountain top finishes in the history of cycling. This win has put us right on track to win our fourth consecutive Tour de France with yet another British rider.

However, there is no time for celebration. In just 18 hours’ time, Stage 13 will begin and every passing hour that goes by is critical in determining how well the team recover and race the next day. Failing to consume that extra plate of rice, not rehydrating optimally or a poor night’s sleep can all lead to seconds and minutes lost tomorrow.

For 21 days, these riders push their bodies to the extremes of physiology. Although the physical preparation for the Tour de France begins many months beforehand, ‘recovery on race’ really can be the difference between winning and losing.

For the support staff, these next 18 hours are all about Performance Delivery. We planned for these moments six months ago. Our best practice recovery protocols have been extensively researched, communicated and practised in the build-up to this race. Our job is now about practical execution, ensuring that knowledge is actually translated to delivery. Our job is ensuring that Geraint is ready to race tomorrow.

Where does recovery rank in the list of performance priorities?  

In February 2021, Science in Sport [SiS] and Leaders co-hosted a virtual roundtable to discuss application of SiS’ Knowledge Delivery Framework, a strategic method of performance management that allows sports to codify, monitor and measure their Performance Determinants, Performance Priorities and Performance Solutions. In applying this framework through a nutritional lens, we asked a range of Performance Directors from the NBA, NFL, NHL and European Football to rank their chosen Performance Priorities within their own sporting environment. The result was unanimous: ‘recovery’ was listed as No 1.

The competition and training schedules of these sports are relentless, often involving 3-4 games in a seven-day cycle. Having your best players consistently available is a critical performance challenge. Nonetheless, whilst player availability is one thing, keeping them fresh and firing on all cylinders is another. Winning consistently requires the best players playing to their best at the right time.

Such conversations prompted me return to my reflections of working in the English Premier League. Two games in a 3–4-day period was the norm and, from a recovery perspective, those initial 2-3 hours immediately after each game were often the most challenging to get right, but also a time that could return the biggest performance impact.

Replenishing muscle glycogen stores, rehydrating, promoting muscle repair and aiding sleep are, of course, the main physiological priorities. Nevertheless, losing to a last-minute goal, dealing with the logistical challenges of home versus away games (potentially affecting the quality of food provision) and coping with late evening kick-off times and travel schedules can all affect the willingness to engage with recovery protocols, despite the obvious rationale.

Unless recovery is embedded as a key performance priority that is cemented in a high-performance culture, a sweep of the dressing room may uncover a host of half-drunk recovery shakes. My reflections from the front line of elite sport have taught me that the details really do matter.

Placing recovery at the heart of performance delivery

When recovery is considered with a nutritional focus, a lack of knowledge may not always be the problem. Rather, my personal and shared reflections with leaders across sport often identify a lack of performance delivery as the rate limiting step. Put simply, the science has already told us what to do but bringing it to life practically is by far the greatest challenge.

In some environments, an apparent lack of delivery may be underpinned by a lack of physical resource, such as when staff members are already spread thin across multiple roles. Indeed, the wider support staff (e.g. doctor, physio and masseur etc.) have their own roles to fulfil before thinking of preparing post-game smoothies, let alone monitoring athlete uptake and counting the amount of carbohydrates that were actually consumed.

If recovery is to be truly enacted as a high-ranking performance priority, it is therefore essential that it is placed at the heart of performance delivery. Initially, this will require significant investment in staff education and alignment so that each member of the management and performance support team is crystal clear on what best practice actually looks like.

Equally, athletes themselves must also be well versed on the role that recovery can play in winning consistently and reducing the risk of injury and illness. Their recovery protocol should be personalised to their individual needs in accordance with their physiological requirements and personal dietary preferences. For some, the traditional plate of pasta and chocolate protein shake may not cut it. Rather, all taste preferences and cultures should be considered when formulating and delivering a detailed and personalised recovery plan. Ultimately, we must ensure that the correct quantity and type of food is consumed at the correct time.

If the application of recovery science is to move forward, then tracking calories should perhaps be considered just as routine as putting on your heart rate monitor before training each day. More often than not, what gets measured gets done.

At Team Sky, it was my responsibility to ensure our riders were optimally fuelled and hydrated to race for 21 consecutive days.  When riders crossed the finish line each day, the clock started ticking.  Every hour of recovery contributed to performance and every meal was tailored to what each rider needed.  The next time the clock starts ticking in your sport, what will you do?

For further information on the SiS Performance Solutions Programme, email: [email protected] or visit: scienceinsport.com

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