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The physical demands of AFL make it one of the toughest sports in the world to recover from, two leading experts say.
Essendon Football Club high performance manager Justin Crow and Dr Dominique Condo – a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at Deakin University, who oversees the nutrition program at the Geelong Football Club and WNBL side Deakin Melbourne Boomers – both believe AFL presents unique challenges in terms of recovery, especially with the occasional shorter break between games.
While sports such as soccer, basketball, baseball and cricket often demand players take the field several times per week in-season, AFL players – who are often involved in high-velocity collisions and at times run up to 15km per match – needed more time to recover from matches.
‘I think AFL really is unique compared to other sports,’ Dr Condo said. “I also work in basketball… and that often involves a shorter break – sometimes there’s a weekend where they play Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But, I think AFL is unique, in terms of the intensity and that real body contact, and the impact that has with recovery and players’ bodies.
‘It does take a couple of days for the players to feel at their peak again purely due to the intensity and nature of that sport,’ Dr Condo said.
Crow agrees, saying AFL players generally needed four days before being ready to take the field again.
‘Of the sports that have high-density scheduling, the most relevant to AFL would be soccer and basketball, and we do take an interest in those,’ Crow said. ‘Soccer teams often play on three-day breaks, and perhaps it’s not as brutal a contact sport but from a running point of view, it’s amazing how they manage to do that,’ Crow continued.
‘There’s aspects to it that are common sense – a later start at the beach the following day for cold water immersion therapy, a later start again the next day to allow players to sleep in, and getting food and protein into them within a half-hour window of the game finishing.
‘If we do the basics right, we expect to play a good game on Sunday,’ Crow says.
'‘It does take a couple of days for the players to feel at their peak again purely due to the intensity and nature of that sport.’'
Dr Dominque Condo,
School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences, Deakin University
But while clubs and players are used to six-day breaks, even shorter turnarounds are rare: outside of the annual Anzac Day blockbuster, clubs are rarely asked to play on a five-day turnaround, although West Coast did defy the short break in conquering Sydney in Round 4. Crow – who worked at Collingwood before joining Essendon in 2011 – says the quick turnaround isn’t too daunting.
‘I think in the research we’ve done at Essendon and previously at Collingwood… looking at objective measures of recovery and how players themselves are rating their recovery, most of the playing group are recovered after four days and ready to play, and play hard,’ he said. ‘Generally, by five days, an AFL team will be ready to go. Of course, the recovery process is individual and often depends on what each player went through in that game. For example, your really quick fast-twitch fibre players will create more muscle damage and will take longer to recover. But five days doesn’t hold much of a concern for us. If it was four days, there’d be a much higher risk of players not being ready,’ Condo said.
Dr Condo says the initial 48 hours are vital in terms of refuelling the body, especially when players faced shorter turnarounds.
‘With shorter breaks, recovery is crucial,’ she says. ‘We really emphasise getting in the required proteins and carbohydrates in the days following a game – the two days post-match are crucial in that regard, getting that total energy intake to optimise recovery in that initial 48-hour period.
‘Every day between games is important but there is a window after any sort of intense physical activity like an AFL game – the first 30 minutes to an hour afterwards is absolutely crucial to get in adequate amounts of protein, so the muscles can optimise the protein most effectively. If they don’t recover well in that first 48 hours, it’s much harder to play catch-up,’ Dr Condo continued.
Dr Condo says the days of players ripping into slabs of beer after matches are long gone – what they consume is closely monitored.
‘We always have a protein supplement straight after the game to get recovery happening immediately, then that’s backed up with some food and energy drinks, and all that happens before they leave the ground,’ she says. ‘Then they’re advised as to what they should be doing after that. A meal before bed that night, then the next day focusing on consistent, frequent intake of high-quality protein and carbohydrates.
‘Hydration is a huge emphasis as well, especially in a shorter break. Players need to take in an adequate amount of fluid after the game, and continuing through the week leading into the next game,’ Dr Condo says.
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