Recovery: back to basics.

In many sports where athletes train hard (let’s say more than 5 training sessions a week), the speed of the recovery process might become a limiting factor in performance. In order to guarantee the next workout to be of high-quality, and to avoid the risk of chronic problems, you want the athlete to recover adequately. But we are facing a few problems here: we can describe the variables of the coming workout, but have very little solid numbers on the level of recovery of the various physiological systems of the athlete such as the neuro-muscular-system, the nervous systems, the hormonal system, the passive movement apparatus or the metabolic system. So most of the time as coaches we assume, we estimate or we gamble.

Right now there are, dependent on where you come from, many ways to speed up the recovery process, e.g. medical-pharmacological methods (this is the forbidden zone in most cases), nutritional recovery like food choices and supplementation, psychological methods like relaxation and biofeedback, physical methods like massages, sauna, thermotherapy, manual therapies and complementary methods like aromatherapy etc.
But there are a few very simple and effective methods, that I hope, are not new to anyone, but which almost everybody tends to overlook.

Most important: SLEEP. Sleep has such a high evolutionary value for our survival that we need to spend one third of our lives sleeping, otherwise the quality of our behavior or our performance is decreasing. During sleep we are vulnerable for e.g. attacks of predators, or nowadays, burglars or intruders. But still, if we sleep one or two hours less than we need to, our performance decreases. And nobody can do with only 2 or 3 hours of sleep a night for a longer period of time without paying a price. But sleep is an activity under pressure: artificial light, TV, computer, pads, phones, tend not only to lengthen our days (mainly our evening), but at the same time to shorten our sleep.
And in many cases decrease the quality of sleep as well, which results in being less recovered when waking up.

People involved in long-hour operations (like in the military), long working hours, (doctors and nurses), shift work (police and security) or jet-lag (air-line pilots and service personnel on board) know this very well. Less sleep means: more fatigue, less attention, worse mood, more errors, worse performance. And in the long term: a strong increase in negative health effects like obesity, diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases.

So, what happens during sleep that does not happen during wakefulness and makes us recover:
– the output of melatonin (a universal antioxidant)
– growth hormone peaks (especially during the first half of sleep)
– cortisol level increase (especially in the two hours before waking up)
– parasympathetic tone increases and sympathetic tone decreases
– heart rate and blood pressure decrease
– ATP consumption of the brain decreases, so ATP increases
– the glyphatic system “cleans” the brain from metabolic waste products
– memory is consolidated

So many processes become active during sleep that are suppressed during wakefulness or day-time.

But there is more: NATURE. It’s not that we did not know it, but natural environments help mental and physical recovery. Be it a walk in a forest or park, contrary to the same walk but now through an industrial area or a busy street. Watching natural landscape in virtual reality or even only listening to the natural soundscape of a babbling brook, a small waterfall or birdsong is enhancing recovery! Of course, nothing beats the real thing with multi-sensory stimuli: the visual aspects, the natural sounds and the smell of flowers, herbs, the sea or pine trees.

This is not so strange: it has been our natural environment through the largest part of our evolutionary history. Only the last few hundred years people came to live in big urban concentrations where this natural environment changed into concrete, glass, steel, and asphalt, with very little room for green while many of our genes are still programmed to survive and to thrive in a natural environment. Some people call the problems that may arise from this discrepancy even the Paleo-Deficit-Disorder.

And think about it, that is why we have, gardens, zoos, city parks, national parks. And where do most people go on holiday if they need to restore from months of work: they go to the beach, the desert, the mountains or the forest for restoration of their mental and physical resources. This need for nature is genetically programmed. We find green and blue tranquillizing and comforting colors, and think of red and black as alarming colors.

Related to this is a third factor: SOUND. People who do sound recording in nature have a problem nowadays: no matter where you are, it never takes long before a man-made sound/noise disturbs the natural soundscape.
Cars, trains, horns, humans using mobile phones, or airplanes, high up in the air. The time of an unspoiled natural soundscape seems to be something from the past. The same goes for silence. It seems it can never be silent anymore, background noise is always there.
Music is following us everywhere, at home, in the car, in the supermarket, in the elevator. Why have we become so afraid of silence? Maybe because you can hear you own voice talking? Noise during the night, when you sleep e.g. when you live near to an airport like I do, has negative effects on sleep, but also on health and performance. Maybe it is part of the reason why many people suffer from problems like fatigue, chronic fatigue, burn-out, tinnitus, anxieties, etc: sensory and cognitive over-stimulation of our brain without enough recovery.

The fourth factor is also related to this: DARKNESS, not only do I live near an airport, but also near to a lot of glasshouses which radiate their light at night.
This prevents us from seeing stars in the sky, those millions of stars that you see while camping out in an empty desert, or far away from cities and industries that pollute the planet with light. And light is information to our brain too: the signal that the sun is out and one should be awake instead of sleeping.

Being far from technophobic, I think that many people are lost and suffer unnecessarily. It seems particularly obvious in the younger clients I see in my office with fatigue- and stress-related problems. Technology is something that should be used to make our lives easier and better. Technology should be our slave. But I observe the opposite: technology, at least the way they use it, makes the life of many people miserable. They are confused and don’t know where it comes from. They became slaves of technology, they can’t sleep without their phone in the bedroom. They get a panic attack when they notice they have left their phone at home. Or they become very uncomfortable when they are talking to somebody or doing something else while they hear their phone beep. With humans like that, who needs robots? They remind me of the dogs of Pavlov, who started drooling at hearing the ringing of the bell, even when in the end there was no food coming, just the unconscious relationship between the ringing of the bell, and the food still existed.

So for recovery of athletes:

  • SLEEP: no phones or pad 2 hours before sleeping, no phone in the bedroom, no picking up of a phone while you are in bed, ready to go to sleep or sleeping
  • GO GREEN: visit a nearby garden, park or forest, walk or sit on a bench and observe the environment and the sky or close your eyes and listen (without phone)
  • Sound proof your life, learn to listen to silence and make you bedroom quiet, close the windows, if possible.
  • Make your bedroom dark, let no light come in from outside. Close the curtains.
  • UNPLUG: if you dare, since most people are in denial and won’t admit that this could be the cause of their problems, their fatigue, their stress or anxiety. Who needs or wants to let his/her life dictated by others?

But maybe I am speaking for myself here.


Fullagar, H.H.K; Skorski, S; Duffield, R; Hammes, D, Coutts, A.J; Meyer, T: Sleep and Athletic Performance: The Effects of Sleep Losson Exercise Performance, and Physiological and Cognitive Responses to Exercise; Sports Med. Vol. 45, 2015, pg. 161–186

Park, B.J; Tsunetsugu, Y; Kasetani, T; Morikawa, T; Kagawa, T; Miyazaki, Y: Physiological Effects of Forest Recreation in a Young Conifer Forest in Hinokage Town, Japan; Silva Fennica, Vol.43, no.2, 2009; pg.291–301.

Tsunetsugu, Y; Park, B.J; Ishii,H; Hirano, H; Kagawa, T; Miyazaki, Y: Physiological Effects of Shinrin-yoku (Taking in the Atmosphere of the Forest) in an Old-Growth Broadleaf Forest in Yamagata Prefecture; Japan. J. Physiol. Anthropol. Vol.26, No.2, 2007, pg. 135–142.

Kaplan, S: The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework; Journal Environm.Psychol. Vol.16, 1992, pg.169-182.

Alvarsson, J.J; Wiens, S; Nilsson, M.E: Stress Recovery during Exposure to Nature Sound and Environmental Noise; Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health Vol. 7, 2010, pg. 1036-1046.

Prochnik, G: In Pursuit of Silence; Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise; Doubleday , 2010.

Hempton, G; Grossman, J: One-square Inch of Silence; One Man’s Quest to Preserve Silence: Simon& Schuster, 2009.

Gooley, J.J; Chamberlain, K; Smith, K.A; Khalsa, S.B.S; Rajaratnam, S.M.W; Van Reen, E , Zeiter, J.M; Czeisler, C.A; Lockley, S.W: Exposure to Room Light before Bedtime Suppresses Melatonin Onset and Shortens Melatonin Duration in Humans; J.Clin.Endocrin.Metab.Vol.96, 2011, pg.E463-E472.

Watson, R: Future Minds: How the Digital Age is changing our lives, why this matters and what can we do about it; Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2010.

Yuan K, Qin W, Wang G, Zeng F, Zhao L, et al: Microstructure Abnormalities in Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder. PLoS ONE 6(6): e20708, 2011.

Spitzer, M; Digitale Demenz; Droemer Verlag, 2012 (in German)


  1. Hallo Henk,

    Interessante blog. Een paar eye-openers, vooral de punten met betrekking de groene omgeving en geluid. De andere liggen, voor mij, meer voor de hand.
    Zijn er ook resultaten bekend van meer gevoeligheid van een atleet op specifieke punten? Als ik het dan even tot mezelf beperk, ik ben zeer gevoelig voor duisternis/licht en slaap het liefst in een volledig donkere kamer. Kan me voorstellen dat meer mensen dit soort ervaringen hebben.

    Denk verder dat aandacht voor deze zaken weer eens aangeeft hoever we soms weg zijn gegaan van wat goed voor ons is. Bijvoorbeeld het puntje Unpluggen is in de huidige maatschappij al bijna niet meer denkbaar, ik ga er toch weer aandacht voor vragen bij “mijn” turnsters. Zeker als ik de verhalen hoor dat ze tot laat en zeker ook
    ‘s nacht connected willen zijn en blijven!

  2. Great stuff; love it! Sound-tip: have good experiences with Ohropax (soft-Waxbullits) in combination with soft cloth (for example the sleeve of a light natural fabric fleece) over the eyes — all you got to do is lay down, relax and enjoy deep silence and darkness. Some people opt against it, arguing it blocks their awareness (i.e. triggering their fear!) — the experience is quit the contrary: it stimulates inner quietness, rest, relaxation while maintaining a positive alert outlook trough other senses.

  3. Mr. Kraaijenhof. I am a Master Fencing Coach in the USA, Austin, Texas. Recently there has been a bit of controversy on cool-down exercises or just cool-downs in general after an exercise workout or competition. I have posed this question to some of the top fencing coaches and fencers in the USA and I would like to know your opinion on the subject. The question is: In your personal opinion do you feel cool-down exercises after workouts and competitions are important? Yes or No. Either way, please briefly explain why. I would be very grateful if you can provide your opinion. Thank you very much.

    1. Hello Gary, Thanks for your mail. Personally my experience is that cooling-down exercises, do not add anything to the trainingeffect, to performance, to recovery or injury prevention as a matter of fact it is very likely that one might blunt the specific training stimulus, necessary for adaptation: e.g. anti-inflammatory measures to muscle soreness decrease hypertrophy or flushing out lactate will decrease anaerobic adaptations. Also for warming-up, we warm-up specific and as short as necessary to provide optimal conditons for performance. Hope is answers your question.


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