Hot Topic: Importance of recovery

In our latest Hot Topic, British Para-Swimming Head Coach Rob Aubry talks through the physical and mental benefits of using an athlete's time out of the pool effectively, as well as tips for those who have had a period away from the sport and are looking to get back on the blocks.

With one of the busiest swimming seasons in recent history now consigned to the history books, and with training centres and clubs getting back into the pool after some well-deserved time away from the water, the need to look after an athlete's wellbeing as the training intensity begins to build comes into focus. 

Here's Rob to discuss the important questions when it comes to recovery in aquatics.

Q: What would you say the biggest benefits are of taking time away and in the importance of recovery?

RA: Its importance cannot be overstated. It is really important to have defined breaks which are planned and not sporadic because that fits in with our planning model, but also to have unplanned breaks as and when.

Psychological, immune, medical and mental health-wise, it is all really important for us just to recharge, take stock of the season and to reflect on both the positive and negative goals and achievements of that season and to mentally and physically recharge, ready for the new season.

Q: Would you apply the same recovery principles to para-swimmers?

RA: I think for para-swimming, it's more bespoke. It's quite often our athletes train away from home, so it's time to actually catch up with parents and friends with any Olympic or Paralympic athletes. But it's also time, quite often, for our athletes to catch up with their medical appointments back in their home county, where most of them will have dedicated medical services that they've worked with all their life.

So for some athletes, it's as mundane as wheelchair maintenance, getting things fixed and fitting of new prosthetics, organizing the next stage of medical appointments for some of our athletes. Equally, quite a few of our athletes don't have any of those areas and it's actually no different to an Olympic counterpart booking a holiday and catching up with mates during that late summer period.

Rob Aubry Jacquie Marshall European Champs 2021 Madeira
Rob Aubry (centre) talks with Jacquie Marshall, Performance Pathway Lead for Para-Swimming

Q: How important is recovery from the perspective of mental health?

RA: What we have to remember is we went into a gruelling four-year quad cycle that technically turned into five, which was unplanned with COVID, and that took a massive amount of strain. People also forget that our athletes had already organised college, retirement and university options in that fifth year that then suddenly all got changed, so quite a few athletes ended up overextending in life and in swimming, which is always a massive hurdle.

There are then those who put education on pause or commitments such as weddings and things like that on pause to do that fifth year into Tokyo - and then to bounce back straight into a World Championships and then for some into a Commonwealth Games this year. It's been an intense six years since Rio with minimal breaks.

So from a psychological perspective, I think to have the break at the end of the 2022 season, to spend time with friends and families and without any pressures of training and recovery after training is really important. Recovering in time and over time is really important and it reduces the constant chances of becoming stale.

It's also the opportunity for athletes just to catch up, and I've mentioned it before, but seeing their friends and families and recharging their batteries is really important to our athletes, who normally train at unsociable times. That means actually spending quality time with friends and family, which is a real bonus for them during that stage, and this really helps their mental state.

Q: What are the drawbacks to competing excessively?

RA: I think as an animal and a human being, there's only so many times that we can hit a peak performance if you associate humans with things like horses, horse racing and quite often you would never see a horse compete back-to-back to back.

Quite often you see a horse trailer take a gap of two years with a horse before they're back on track and it's really important for us to remember that a season is made-up of many races in their peak performance.

With our athletes in particular, we have very young athletes, so it's quite often achievable that they hit a lifetime best performance every year because of maturation. But with our senior athletes, it's really important that we understand peak performance, seasons performance and making sure that our lifetime best achievements are around the games every four years.

So it's really important that we understand when our competition period is happening and why and what we're trying to execute from those races, but it's also really important to have a time away from that so our mental preparation and physical preparation is able to recover ready for the next burst of competition periods.

Becky Redfern Relay Takeover Madeira 2022 [WPS/IPC]
A relay takeover at Madeira 2022

Q: How should an athlete phase back into training after some time away from the water?

RA: That's really important. In swimming, we always make reference to load monitoring, so we're not going from 0 to 100 and we're making sure that our planning is in place to give us the flexibility to go at a sensible pace, bearing in mind some athletes are going into university so we quite often make it a little bit more exciting, so we do a lot of cross training, from rock climbing to water yoga too.

Mixing up some of those dryland activities is good, remembering that our athletes have spent a month, or six to eight weeks away from each other, so rebuilding that connection of the group is really valuable, as well as slowly increasing with a recognized load, to make sure that we're not introducing a significant risk of injury.

Q: How significantly does a day off from training affect an athlete, if at all?

RA: It's important for an athlete to have a great working relationship with their coach. If they may be coming down with something, it's really important to communicate with the relevant people, because if that is ignored, the hole that we're digging or the hole that they're digging for themselves just gets bigger.

But there is a fine, fine line between tiredness, robustness, and illness, and that developing athlete and the parent and the coach working together can help identify which one that is, because there will be times where a coach will be working an athlete hard and a good coach will talk them through the plans that they have coming up and explain the importance of rest and recovery for a certain block or phase of training.

Communication is key between parents, coaches and the athletes, and that relationship between an athlete and coach, and understanding their body and what they're going through, is all really important. Particularly in developing female athletes, it's probably an area that we don't discuss enough, and it's really important that we develop those communication strands as early as possible to support the athlete in the home environment and training involved.