Combats Sports Athletes | Top 8 Rules For Quicker Muscle Recovery

Recovery between training sessions (also known as “training recovery”) is important for ensuring optimal athlete performance. The rigours of combat sports training which includes high intensity technical sessions, resistance training, weight reduction strength and conditioning and plyometric training; means recovery is even more essential.

Of course if recovery between sessions is incomplete then it may temporarily impair performance prior to competition, or may destroy the progress of a well constructed training regime.

So how best should a combat sports athlete recovery between training sessions, or between competitions? Read on to find out more!

What is Fatigue?

Fatigue is contributed to by both acute and chronic exercise-induced physiological changes which involve mechanical and biochemical adaptations. One of the reasons recovery modalities tend to show poor outcomes is due to the lack of understanding of what fatigue consists of (1, 2).

kirk miller abs muscle recovery combats sports athletes

It is thought to involve two main interchangeable components, which are:

1) Central nervous system fatigue

Central nervous system fatigue is hypothesised as the influence the nervous system has on muscles, where the muscles are capable of further physical output, however this effort is blocked by the brain as a potential protective response against injury (3). This theory is supported by evidence showing that the motor cortex of the brain (movement centre) shows reduced output during fatigue (4), as such innervation of the motor neurones in the muscle reduce b
elow the level required for maximal force.

2) Peripheral tissue fatigue

Peripheral fatigue is more often discussed regarding recovery interventions as understanding the specifics of muscle tissue damage and repair are deemed essential for mastering training recovery (5). During peripheral fatigue the muscle has been altered (through training) either metabolically, biochemically or mechanically, to the extent that it cannot respond as well during activity (6).

Short term impairments post exercise include metabolic disturbance and tissue cell acidosis (7), and exhaustion of muscle glycogen stores (8-9). Another key component discussed is tissue dehydration, which needs to be rehydrated during recovery (10).

Interestingly, such characteristics have been demonstrated to occur following combat sports competition. In judo athletes a match leads to changes indicative of both protein and fat metabolism with increases in subsequent blood lactate (11).

What Could You Try to Recover?

Massage is very commonly used by combat sports athletes to recover between sessions and whilst some studies show its benefit in reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (12); others do not (13). However, it should be noted that the benefits of massage to central fatigue mechanisms cannot be discounted.

compression gearmuscle recovery combats sports athletes

Another commonly used treatment is non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) (e.g. ibuprofen). Again some research shows that taking NSAIDs reduces muscle soreness (14) and reduces creatine kinase activity (a measure of muscle breakdown) (15). However, other research suggests that taking ibuprofen can suppress muscle growth following exercise (16).

✓ Compression gear

The use of compression garments are often seen worn by professional combat sports athletes – these garments utilise the benefits of compressive force in attempts to improve peripheral measurements of physiological fatigue. Definite improvements were shown in performance in jumping and knee muscle strength were seen when utilising compression clothing during recovery (29-30.)

Researchers do suggest that use of compression garments may be more beneficial for those competing in contact sports (which combat sports obviously are) or in younger athletes who are using plyometric training for the first time (31).

✓ Ice Baths

A final intervention people use often is ice baths and cryosauna tanks. The use of cold for recovery is known also as cryotherapy and can reduce blood creatine kinase levels, lead to greater muscle relaxation and reduced scores of perceived exertion during training (17-18). However the research as a whole remains weak (13).

So what CAN you do to recover?

Training programme development prior to competition, or generally throughout the year, has to include periods of time to assist optimal recovery. Professional combat sports athletes probably spend more time during recovery sessions then they do in actual training (19).

This can take the form of specific individualised sessions per week devoted to recovery, a planned tapering period prior to competition (20) or the variation of higher and lower intensity sessions (21-22).

The benefit of periodising your training programme in this way is based on the premise that a degree of rest and recuperation can improve physical performance in following sessions. By examining the potential conflicts of mixing technical martial arts training with strength and conditioning/ resistance training sessions, allows the strategy to optimise the performance of both areas. This is essential in combat sports where training is intense and mixed.

Active Recovery

muscle recovery combats sports athletes

Evidence suggests that martial artists and combat sports practitioners can benefit from active recovery (19). This often takes the form of normal technical training drills at a lower intensity or slower pace. For example, MMA fighters, boxers and kick boxers often utilise technique sparring where aggressiveness and speed is replaced by control and accuracy where footwork and strike placement are given greater attention.

Judo specific research has shown that a 70% active recovery session was better than static rest at reducing peripheral blood marker levels post activity (27). Such sessions are commonly suggested for mixed martial arts training programmes (19, 28).

Top 8 Rules For Quicker Muscle Recovery

muscle recovery combats sports athletes

Some specific rules should be followed to optimise recovery training sessions for the combat sports athlete:

1) Evidence in mixed martial arts suggest time should be devoted to active recovery, as well as rest (19).

2) Variable intensity of active sessions can be between 40-70% rate of perceived exertion (23).

3) Nutrition and refuelling post session may be more important than active recovery and could include iron, anti-oxidant and creatine supplementation to promote tissue repair (24).

4) Re-hydration of body fluid levels beyond that lost during training must be included as part of a recovery strategy (20,25), especially in combat sports where weight cutting requires active dehydration.

5) Restoration of fluids includes intake of appropriate electrolyte levels (e.g. >50mmol/ L² of sodium, as well as some potassium and carbohydrates to restore glycogen stores) (20).

6) Combinations of recovery modalities which include dietary supplementation, NSAIDs, cryotherapy and active recovery show better outcomes than singular interventions (26).

7) A gradual 5-10 minute cool down post exercise can transition the body to a state of relaxation after training and optimise recovery (20).

8) Combat sports athletes and trainers should consider using a self reported measure of fatigue, rate of exertion and sleep quality (e.g. REST-Q Sport) to guide training recovery (23).

Take Home Message

Recovery is the return to full physiological function from a degree of either central or
peripheral fatigue. Evidence poorly supports the use of singular interventions to improve training recovery- however the influence on central nervous system fatigue is rarely measured.

Combined interventions incorporating active recovery of 40-70%, alongside nutrition and hydration optimisation, and other modalities are the best bet at improving recovery for the combat sports athlete.

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