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Athletic Trainers: Recovery Tips for Physical and Mental Wellness

As an athletic trainer (AT), you play a unique role in a young athlete’s life. You typically have significant insight into an athlete’s health and wellbeing, and often serve as an athlete’s advocate to their coaches and their parents. One key area that is often overlooked by coaches, athletes, and families is the importance of recovery for performance and health, and ATs are perfectly positioned to emphasize the benefit of good recovery practices for athletes under their care.

“Athletic trainers have such a strong influence on the athletes they work with,” says Dr. Michele LaBotz, TrueSport Expert and sports medicine physician. “And teaching athletes the importance of recovery is one of the most valuable things an athletic trainer can do. Athletes already know the importance of training hard. But they also need to pay attention to their recovery.  If you’re going to train at high intensity, then you have to recover ‘like you mean it.’”

So, what exactly does that look like? ATs can support recovery by helping athletes understand the importance of sleep, how to dial in nutrition, and how to reduce stress and strain, both physically and mentally.

Sleep duration matters

When it comes to sleep, it’s hard to overdo it for young athletes.  In fact, athletes between 13-18 years old need 8-10 hours of sleep per night, and athletes 12 and under need 9-12 hours. Recent evidence shows that these recommendations are not only important for health, but for athletic performance and injury prevention as well. This means actual sleep (not just time in bed) and the amount required for young athletes is higher than the 7-9 hours of sleep recommended for adults. For busy student-athletes balancing full school, sport, and social schedules, getting that amount of sleep can be incredibly difficult.

Research has shown that nearly 70 percent of adolescents get under seven hours of sleep, and LaBotz thinks the number is likely even higher than that, especially for busy athletes. “Junior year is a real pressure cooker year for students, and it’s not uncommon for student-athletes to laugh and say, ‘How the heck do you expect me to be able to sleep 8-10 hours a night?’” says LaBotz. “Between schoolwork and practice, there aren’t enough hours in the day. But if performance is a priority, then sleep should be too.”

Acute loss of sleep from an all-nighter may leave students feeling drained, but chronic sleep deprivation is the bigger problem, says LaBotz. “You don’t feel tired when chronically sleep deprived, but that’s when injuries and illness are more likely to occur. Performance will also suffer. If an athlete is not getting enough sleep, extra time sleeping is going to be better than the equivalent amount of extra training.”

Dial in sleep hygiene

As an AT, you won’t be able to control how much an athlete sleeps, but you can counsel them and send recommendations home to help create an optimal sleep environment. Aim for cool, dark, and quiet in the bedroom, and keep that space as uncluttered as possible.

Recent research shows lower sleep time and quality when screens are in the bedroom. We know this is tough for teenagers, but if they take their sport seriously, it’s key! Encourage athletes to avoid too much screen time before bed and practice a nighttime routine that helps them wind down.

For athletes who are consistently “under-sleeping,” LaBotz often recommends that they set a sleep schedule by the clock rather than going by how they feel. “The first couple nights can be a little rough,” she says. “But if they can stick with it for a week or two, they often notice a big difference.”

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Athlete Health Parent TrueSport