Guest Post by:

Alec DeCastro
Assistant Professor
Medical Director, James Island Family Medicine
Family Medicine: Sports Medicine


As the football season finally wraps up with the first College Football playoff and the Super Bowl this month, it’s a good time to discuss how to let athletes recover during and after the long season!

Football is one of the most popular and widely-played sports in the US, and also one of the hardest on the body. High school athletes suffer up to 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits, and 30,000 hospitalizations nationally each year.  Reportedly, there are three times as many catastrophic football injuries in high school athletes than college athletes, according to the Youth Sports Safety Alliance. Many injuries occur among high school athletes due to a combination of extra pressure and a lack of preventative measures, especially during and after those grueling, hard-hitting practices.  While juggling many priorities, high school students often don’t realize that recovering from a minor or serious injury is a totally different type of commitment than studying for a test or even working out. Whether it was during pre-season or in the post-season, here are some tips you can take to recover from current injuries and prevent new injuries from happening.

What is recovery?

Recovery is a very important part of any athletes’ training program and can be an overlooked means of preparation for athletes.  Athletic seasons, like football, are long and strenuous and recovery should be an integral part of any athletes’ training plan.  Recovery is one aspect of training that is often over looked and done incorrectly.  Athletes often view recovery as a day away from training in which they do absolutely nothing, but a day designed for active recovery is different than just a day off.  Along with immediate recovery and recovery days, different modalities can be utilized daily after training to enhance an athletes’ performance.  These strategies take very little time, but can make the difference after a long season or a tournament.

Get Adequate Rest

Approximately one third of football injuries develop over an extended period of time, and are due to over-exertion. The best way to heal these types of injuries is to give it the body time to rest.

Immediate recovery should take place within the first thirty minutes after competition or training which encompasses nutrition and cryotherapy. Right after the injury, follow the PRICE recovery method: Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Remember, many injuries occur during training, so don’t forget to plan to recover after those sessions as well.  Cold therapy or cryotherapy can consist of ice over the injured area, to cold water immersion for about 5 minutes. To avoid frostbite, don’t place ice directly on the skin.  Athletes exerting the whole body in sports like football can use cold water tub therapy, but this should be always supervised by an athletic trainer.

A recovery day should be planned for the day after each game. The main focus during this time is to let injured tissues to return to normal through active recovery.  Using non-weight bearing aerobic equipment like stationary bikes or ellipticals, the athlete heals by increasing circulation, which brings oxygen rich blood to the recovering tissues and removes bad waste products.   Self-massage and flexibility can also be utilized with foam rolls which assists in returning the muscles to normal length and quality. 

Recovery, however, may depend on the sport.  For example, in running, a technique called periodization is used to enhance recovery.  Periodization is simply a descriptive term for a training plan which is divided into distinct seasons, or periods of training.  Real increases in fitness and strength occur during the rest and regeneration periods between the periods of hard work when the body is given the opportunity to repair and rebuild itself stronger to withstand such excesses in the future. These types of periodized training plans, may be also be modified for football seasons in order to establish a stronger base for the next season of training.

Here is an example of a runner’s end of the season break and how they scheduled their recovery:

Eat Right

After practices and over the long season, muscles tear from the stress of hard competitions. A good post-workout diet ensures that the body is getting what it needs to rebuild those muscle fibers so they’re strong enough to handle the next athletic activities. Remember two things: protein and carbohydrates.  There are many economical food options that have are available.  Food with proteins like yogurt, shakes, or chocolate milk help rebuild tissues.  Complex carbohydrates like granola and bananas, help replenish blood sugar levels.  However, remember to always to stay hydrated on and off the field. 

Listen to Your Body

If any athlete is injured, support them, and let them know that their choice to play or not is a good one either way. It’s always better to wait it out than to play and risk more injury. Never play through pain. Instead, report all injuries to your athletic trainer or sports medicine doctor, comply with the right treatment regimens, and get approval before returning to the field.

Stay Patient & Positive

Many young athletes exude a sense of invincibility, thinking that injuries won’t happen to them, until they do.  Remind them that muscles take time to heal and that it is important to stay positive. Many professional athletes recover from career jeopardizing injuries because they maintained a sense of optimism and an uplifting attitude. Also, staying positive makes healing and rehab go by more quickly so they can be out back on the field before they know it!

End of the season time off

At the end of the season, it may be time for a full break.  This is an ideal time to substitute some alternative forms of exercise to provide different physical and mental stimuli for improved overall physical fitness and enjoyment of exercise.  A yoga or Pilates class can improve flexibility and core strength, which will provide great benefits when they resume active training in the next season.  Swimming provides great non-impact cardiovascular exercise in the off-season (if you have access to an indoor pool!).  Doing these alternate activities may help avoid injuries, overtraining, and burnout!

Injuries are inevitable in the world of football. The first step to preventing and recovering from them is to rest, stay diligent with recovering, and keep a level of positivity. Listen to the body at all times while playing and training to avoid any major devastating injuries.  Make it a goal this New Year to plan your rest and recovery both during and after the season!