10 Sports Recovery Tips for Youth

It’s that time of year again! Youth sports are about to begin, school starts in just over a month, and most kids and their associated teams are starting training now! Millions of school-age children nationwide are getting off the couch and walking away from their computer games as they launch into a new season of conditioning workouts… especially football teams.  

Along with the positive shift in activity comes a good lot of soreness and injuries. Many parents and their kids are now looking for tips to recover quickly from grueling workouts, so that they are in proper shape to begin the next one.

Following are tips I have gathered from my own career experience, along with those I trust for other experts in the exercise field.

1. Pre Workout Nutrition

Make sure your kids are eating a balanced diet before and after their workout.  

What an athlete takes in before exercise impacts their recovery. According to research presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, consuming protein before lifting weights enhances recovery better than consuming a protein drink afterward. 

That's because the body digests pre-exercise protein into amino acids (yes, the body can digest food during exercise!) and puts those amino acids into action, repairing damaged muscles.

2. Post Workout Nutrition

Chocolate milk, yogurt and fruit smoothies are excellent and appealing recovery foods that are a source of valuable carbs and proteins. A rule of thumb: Consume three quarters of a gram of carbohydrates per body pound of weight. Experts believe that adding protein to this starchy base will optimize one’s system's ability to repair muscle. The best recovery foods offer quality carbs without unnecessary fillers and sweeteners. Good choices include a thick peanut butter sandwich or a bowl of cereal.

Recovery meals and snacks should include a foundation of carbohydrate-rich breads, cereals, grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as a lesser amount of protein (at least 10-20 grams per recovery snack or meal). 

For example:

  • Fruit Smoothie (Greek yogurt + banana + berries)
  • cereal + milk + bagel + (decaf) latté
  • pretzels + humus + enriched baked potato + cottage cheese
  • turkey sub + pasta + meatballs

Do not consume just protein (as in a protein shake or protein bar). Protein fills an athlete's stomach and helps build and repair muscles—but it does not refuel muscles, which want three or four times more calories from carbs than from protein. 

If your teen athlete likes the convenience of protein shakes, at least add carbs to them. Consider blending in banana, frozen berries and graham crackers.

If your teen sweats heavily and loses a significant amount of sodium, the losses can easily be replaced with:

  • Pretzels (300 mg sodium/10 twists)
  • A bagel (500 mg) with peanut butter (200 mg/2 tbsp)
  • Wheaties and milk (300 mg)
  • A spaghetti dinner with tomato sauce (1000 mg/cup Ragu sauce)

3. Rest

Most athletes know that getting enough rest after exercise is essential to high-level performance, but many still over-train and feel guilty when they take a day off. The body repairs and strengthens itself between workouts, and continuous training can actually weaken the strongest athletes.

Rest days are critical to sports performance for a variety of reasons. Some are physiological and some are psychological. Rest is physically necessary so that muscles can repair, rebuild and strengthen. For recreational athletes, including rest days can help maintain a better balance between home, work and fitness goals.

In a worst-case scenario, too few rest and recovery days can lead to overtraining syndrome. That is a condition that is quite difficult to recover from.

4. Stretching and/or Yoga

After a tough workout, consider gentle stretching or beginner's yoga. This is a simple and quick means to help your muscles recover. There are many sources on the Internet for “recovery yoga.”

5. Active Recovery

Keep in mind that there are two categories of recovery. There is immediate (short-term) recovery from a particularly intense training session or event, and the long-term recovery that needs to be built into a year-round training schedule. Both are essential for optimal sports performance.

Short-term recovery (sometimes called active recovery) occurs in the hours immediately after intense exercise. This refers to engaging in low-intensity exercise after workouts during both the cool-down phase immediately after an intense effort or workout, as well as during the days following the workout. Both types of active recovery are absolutely linked to performance benefits.

6. Adequate Sleep

In general, one or two nights of poor or little sleep won't have much impact on performance, but consistent inadequate sleep can result in subtle changes in hormone levels, particularly those that relate to stress, muscle recovery and mood. 

There is research that indicates that sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), decreased activity of human growth hormone (active during tissue repair) and decreased glycogen stores, which are necessary for intense exercise.

7. Ice Baths

Some athletes swear by ice baths, ice massage or contrast water therapy (alternating hot and cold showers) to recover faster, reduce muscle soreness and prevent injury. 

The theory behind this method is that by repeatedly constricting and dilating blood vessels, waste products in the tissues are removed or flushed out. Limited research has found some benefits of contrast water therapy at reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

How to use contrast water therapy: While taking your post-exercise shower, alternate 2 minutes of hot water with 30 seconds of cold water. Repeat four times, with a minute of moderate temperatures between each hot-cold spray. If you happen to have a spa with hot and cold tubs available, you can take a plunge in each for the same time.

Massage improves circulation

8. Massage

Massage feels good and improves circulation while allowing you to fully relax. You can also try self-massage and foam roller exercises. This is a no-brainer!

9. Replace Fluids

After a hard workout, many athletes reach for a sports drink, thinking Gatorade or Powerade is "loaded" with sodium (an electrically charged particle). Think again! Milk and other "real foods" are actually better sources of electrolytes than most commercial sports products. These electrolytes (sodium and potassium) help enhance fluid retention and the restoration of normal fluid balance.

Everyone loses a lot of fluid during exercise, and ideally you should be replacing it during exercise—but filling up after exercise is an easy way to boost recovery. Water supports every metabolic function and nutrient transfer in the body, while having plenty of water improves every bodily function. Adequate fluid replacement is even more important for endurance athletes, who lose large amounts of water during hours of sweating.

10. Visualization, Meditation & Imagery

Adding a mental practice to your workout routine can be a huge benefit for any athlete. Spending time practicing mental rehearsal or following a mindfulness meditation program can help process a calm, clear attitude and reduce anxiety and reactivity. 

Becoming familiar with how your mind works, how thoughts can bounce around, and how you don’t need to attach to any of them, is an ideal means for an athlete to recover both mentally and physically. Additionally, practicing positive self-talk can help change the ongoing dialogue in one’s head. Consider using both types of mental practice during recovery days.