Friday night lights can be some of the most incredible experiences in high school. This goes for both players and students. I never played football, but going home and away games on Friday nights in high school made some of my best memories as a teenager. Hanging out with friends, the chants, the excuse to hug the girl next to you when your team scored, the other excuse to take your shirt off and unnecessarily flex but pretend your not flexing in front of that girl, good times. The only problem with the games is they only happen once a week.
Football, America’s most celebrated sport, plays the fewest and most infrequent games of all the major sports. They only play once a week, which is a shame given how much fun they are and how much money they can generate for a school. But we all know why. It’s a brutal game. Most sports have penalties against too much contact, but you literally tackle each other at full speeds in football. That understandably takes an incredible toll on the body. But how long does it really take? Players can be sore for a couple of days, but are they really ready to go full speed by Monday?
Learning more about recovery from football games can better help coaches, trainers, and athletes learn how to recover efficiently. Adjusting practice schedules, altering the strength and conditioning programs, and improving nutritional strategies can all help enhance an athlete’s recovery and gain an edge for next Friday.
A 2021 study from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute looked to investigate the recovery statuses of a team of football players. The day before their game, they measured a wide variety of variables and compared those measurements at different times after the game. They examined maximum jump height, testosterone, cortisol, inflammation levels, and some other measurements. The best part of this study was how often they took these measurements. They didn’t just measure these the next day. They measured these 30 minutes after the game, 20, 44, 68, 92, 116, and 140 hours after the game. They essentially measured their power and hormone levels every day between games and compared the results.
Surprisingly, the testosterone and inflammation levels did not change and remained stable. Cortisol significantly increased after the game. Cortisol is basically a stress hormone, but the levels return to normal the next day or two. Cortisol can harm sleep, cause a buildup of belly fat, have negative hormonal impacts, and cause chronic inflammatory conditions. But, these levels were high only one night and were pretty normal two days later. No big deal, but to serious athletes, that’s worth working on. More on that later.
The most significant change came with jump measurements. Jumps are an expression of power. A reduction of jump height, speed, and flight time indicate suboptimal recovery. And that’s what the researchers found. They found that jumping measurements were reduced anywhere from 44-68 hours after the game.
This study tells us that, for high school athletes, it takes roughly two days to recover on a hormonal basis and around three days to recover from a neuromuscular perspective. For athletes that play on Friday, don’t expect them to act and feel 100% until Monday or Tuesday. This is, of course, assuming they sustained no injuries.
One of the limitations of this study from Gatorade is that it’s only from one game. Whether the game was early or late in the year could alter the recovery results. For example, this time on college football players, another study showed that the athletes tend to lose muscle mass throughout a season. This loss of muscle can lead to changes in weight and can be detrimental to performance and recovery. They recommended the athletes lift heavier weights as the season progresses to retain muscle mass throughout the season.
Strategies to Enhance Recovery
We can assume the rigors of a season can accumulate. These 2-3 days of recovery may turn to 3-4 during a playoff run, especially in rougher weather conditions that are difficult to play in. Regardless of the year, all players and coaches want the athletes to recover as quickly as possible. Here are some strategies to make football recovery more efficient.
The last thing you should do the day after a game is exert yourself, further pushing you into an exhausted state. The second last thing you should do is sit on the couch all day. Especially on Saturday, football athletes need to move and stay active at very low intensities. This literally can mean walking in a park. Movement helps lubricate joints and hydrate muscles. Much research has been done proving the efficacy of low intensity, longer duration movement to reduce muscle soreness.
Food is essential for performance and recovery. After a game, remember the two Ps. Protein and potassium. We all know protein is beneficial in repairing damaged muscle tissue and helps them grow. Football players should consume a minimum of 30 grams of protein after a football game to ensure protein synthesis. Protein synthesis means your body will use the protein to build muscle. Next, you need potassium. Potassium helps to hydrate your body and provides various benefits after a game. Potassium also helps combat the elevated cortisol levels we found in the study.
Continue to eat high amounts of protein, fruit, and vegetables to help repair muscle and optimize hormone balance. Be sure to weigh yourself each week to see if you are maintaining your weight and not losing it as the season goes.
Here’s What You Need to Know
Research shows that it can take an entire week to recover from a game for some athletes. For the most part, athletes feel and perform their normal selves 3 days after a game. But to be a great athlete and a great team.
- Move! Don’t lay on the couch all weekend after a game. I recommend walking, not jogging. Jogging is a high-impact activity and can worsen inflammation around joints.
- Eat at least 30 grams of protein at each meal to repair muscle as quickly as possible.
- Consume lots of potassium after games and practices
- Consider not running game speed practices until Tuesday. It’s shown that the athletes will typically not be able to play with 100% speed until then. Performance deficits that usually last for three days put the athletes at elevated risk of injury. This becomes more prevalent as the season goes on.
Hopefully, this is helpful for athletes and their parents and coaches. This isn’t an exhaustive list of good bang for the buck things you can do to enhance recovery methods for football players. Going full pads game speed practices within three days after a game isn’t wise. Old school methodology tends to ignore the principles of recovery. But, recent research shows that giving athletes ample time to recover is the key to keeping them healthy and having football players perform their best on Fridays.