With many teams into or approaching the business end of their seasons, we've called on the physical therapy knowledge and research skills of Tim Fergus to evaluate what the science says on the efficacy of common recovery methods after a hard day of ultimate.
If you have played in an ultimate tournament before, you know the dreaded feeling of soreness that follows the first day. You have also probably tried many different strategies to try and reduce that soreness. Maybe ice baths are your savior, or maybe you stretch and foam roll every night after ultimate.
Whatever your choice of recovery strategy is, this article will look at what current research tells us about how well some common recovery techniques work.
Many of these strategies can be used for more than just recovery from a hard day of ultimate, so I am going to narrow down my research to focus on recovery from one day of ultimate to the next. The big issues here are next day soreness and next day athletic performance.
This is probably one of the more widely-used recovery options, with every team seeming to have some combination of foam rollers, lacrosse balls, or roller sticks on the sideline. But do these things really help to recover from a hard day of ultimate?
Doesn’t seem like it.
This is a tough question to answer. Performance is a broad topic and was measured in different ways in different studies. Squat strength, agility tests, vertical jump, and sprint speed have all been measured and a consistent trend is not to be found.
A few found improvements in strength and sprinting, while others found no improvement in those same categories. The fact that the results are so variable indicates that there isn’t a strong relationship between foam rolling after exercise and athletic performance the following day.1, 2
In several studies, foam rolling improved how sore subjects felt the next day or two. Subjects would typically go through a few initial tests, followed by an intense workout to cause soreness. Subjects foam rolled after the workout, then returned sometime over the next few days and completed the same baseline tests again.
After foam rolling, subjects reported improvement in how “tender” their muscles were to touch and how sore they felt.1, 2
There is definitely stronger evidence for foam rolling after exercise to reduce soreness than to improve performance, but regardless, the effects of foam rolling are fairly small. Though you may feel less sore the day after foam rolling, it doesn’t appear to make a huge difference.
It is impossible to say how a small difference in soreness would impact performance on the ultimate field, but ultimate is often a game of inches. There is very little evidence to suggest foam rolling might negatively impact your performance on the ultimate field, so if you think it feels good, continue with those Saturday night hotel foam roll parties.
Since foam rolling is often used for other things, such as part of a warm-up, I want to reiterate that I evaluated research solely on how foam rolling after exercise affected athletes the next few days.
Ah, the good old end of day stretching circle. We’ve all been a part of one. We all know the horribly awesome feeling of holding a stretch after a long day of ultimate. But does holding a prolonged, or static, stretch really help us recover and prepare us for the next day?
Hard to say.
I had difficulty finding much research on the effects of static stretching after exercise on next day performance. Most of the research assessing the relationship between static stretching and performance has been done in the context of a warmup or pre-exercise activity.
As far as athletic performance the day after a tiring athletic event, there is not enough research to really make a stand here.
Studies have consistently shown no difference in soreness levels after stretching or not stretching the few days following exercise. This same trend has been demonstrated through a number of different stretching protocols and exercise types.
One study even showed that static stretching increased soreness the following day.3,4
This one is straightforward. There is simply not enough evidence to justify static stretching after ultimate in order to improve your performance the next day. As things stand, there are better uses of your team and individual time to help improve recovery.
The most common type of cool down or active recovery seems to be the post tournament jog around the field. It is thought to make us feel and perform better the next day. What does the research say?
Similar to the research done in foam rolling, studies show inconsistent results. A likely reason is that the active recovery techniques were highly variable between studies. Some used walking, some jogging, some water-based exercises, many for different lengths of time.
A recent systematic review found that 6-10 minutes of light aerobic activity, was the only duration of active recovery that consistently improved future performance, though the quality of these studies is not great.
The majority of other studies however find that active recovery techniques differ trivially from passive ones in improving next day exercise performance. A few studies show decent positive effects, and a few even show some negative effects.5
Research indicates that active recovery tends to have very little effect on soreness. There are certainly some studies that indicate it might improve soreness, but we run into the same issues here that we do with all the other research.
Inconsistent study design means that its hard to pinpoint what kind of active recovery to do, for how long, and after what type of exercise. Luckily, there isn’t much to suggest it makes soreness worse either.6
Though it doesn’t have overwhelming evidence, active recovery seems to be a bit better than other recovery techniques for improving next day performance. Completing 6-10 minutes of light aerobic active such as walking or jogging, may improve performance the next day, though it likely won’t help with soreness.
On all the teams I have ever played for, there always seems to be a few people who swear by ice baths. Every Saturday night at tournaments, they fill up a tub in the hotel with ice and have themselves an ice bath party. Are they onto something?
Ice baths don’t seem to have a consistent effect on any measure of athletic performance. Though some studies show some improvement on things such as vertical jump, others show a similar reduction in performance.
However, most of the research indicates that ice baths simply don’t have a significant effect on next day athletic performance.
Studies that found improvement in athletic performance after icing often started to see those improvements 2-4 days after the initial exercise. So icing might be better suited when playing in a 3-4 day ultimate tournament.7, 8
Ice bathing almost certainly helps to reduce soreness following intense exercise. Multiple systematic reviews have concluded the same thing, with varying degrees of confidence. One review found the average ice bath time to be 13 minutes.7, 9
Of these 4 recovery techniques, ice baths seem to have the most consistent effect of reducing next day muscle soreness. While the optimal length of ice bath has not been well established, the average length of ice baths in one systematic review was 13 minutes, so that’s probably a good place to start.
I also want to address one common criticism of icing. Icing is thought to reduce blood flow and the body’s natural inflammatory response. Some people believe this may delay the healing process, since your body needs adequate blood flow for adequate healing.
I don’t want to get off topic too much, but rest assured, your body is probably able to overcome the effects of a 13-minute ice bath at tournaments without much trouble. If you find yourself taking an ice bath every night and you are recovering from an injury, you may want to do some rethinking.
When assessing evidence on any topic, it’s important to understand the limitations of research. None of these studies used ultimate players as subjects. The technique, duration, and intensity of the recovery strategies varied between studies. Subjects weren’t blinded. The list goes on.
These limitations are at least somewhat to blame for the inconsistent results of these studies, so what is most important to me here are consistent trends. At this point, there appear to be a few reliable trends:
Doing a cool down and foam rolling after games are over on the 1st day of a tournament will set you up for success. If you can tolerate it, take an ice bath in the evening.
If stretching is your thing, while I can’t recommend it, it probably won’t hurt. The placebo effect is real and if it helps get your mind ready to play then the psychological benefits shouldn’t be underestimated.
I can’t write a post about recovery without talking about sleep, hydration and nutrition. If you are not getting at least 8 hours of sleep, eating well, and drinking enough water after a long day of ultimate, fixing that will have much more impact on your performance than anything discussed in the article.
Tim Fergus is a soon-to-be physical therapist in the Chicagoland area who loves working with athletes to help them understand their injuries. He's an ultimate player as well and over the past few years has played with a number of ultimate teams including Chicago Machine, @ChicagoWildfire, and the US U23 mixed team. Through his experiences on these teams, it's become clear that even at the highest level of the sport, there are a lot of misconceptions regarding injuries and training for ultimate.
At Ulty Results we are committed to using science based practices as much as possible. So we are thrilled to be working with Tim to help try and dispel some of these myths by connecting the ultimate community to current research on a variety of topics regarding injury, athletic performance, and training.⠀
Sources for this post are listed below.