The fight arena can be an unforgiving place. Even if you win, there’s a good chance that it won’t be easy and you’ll be on the receiving end of some punishment. In lots of ways, it’s a tax that the fighter pays for the glory of victory. There are few feelings that come close to the joy of winning a contest, as any athlete knows, but this is especially true in combat where you’ve literally had to fight for your win.
We focus a lot on training, on strategy to win and nutrition, but rarely do we see anyone talking about what happens afterwards – how to successfully recover from a fight.
In this article we’re going to look at what the science says about post-fight recovery and how we can apply those lessons sensibly. Even if you’re not a fighter yourself you may learn about post-event and injury recovery, so you can take the lessons learned forward into whatever sport you take part in yourself.
We’ll assess recovery from a number of different aspects, so you’ll get an appreciation of what a Muay Thai fighter goes through in the lead up to a fight, during the fight and after the fight. The aspects we’ll cover are…
- The psychological recovery
- The nutrition recovery
- Injury healing
- Hormonal reset
These elements will contain points that other people won’t always consider, but will prove to be very important as you’ll see as you read on in the article.
Psychological Recovery from Combat
One of the most overlooked but important aspects of post-fight recovery is the psychological recovery. If you think about the adrenaline, the cortisol and the nerves in the build up to the fight then there needs to be a period of calm afterwards. Although the circumstances of organised combat are different than a street fight, the body produces the same hormonal response.
A period of calm reflection post fight is not only a good idea, it’s a vital one. It’s a chance to decompress and talk with your coach. If the fight didn’t go as planned and the fighter suffered either an unexpected or severe loss, taking the time to discuss the outcomes with a team can help prevent symptoms of PTSD from forming. Research shows that talking therapies are an effective way to prevent a negative mental spiral.
This needn’t always be in a therapeutic setting – often the support of friends, family and coaches is enough to help a fighter overcome the post-fight feelings that if not kept in check can become a negative snowball.
Nutritional and Hydrational Recovery
A fight is a hugely physically demanding activity – in a 36 minute boxing bout a boxer could burn over 1000 calories, so there is a very important nutritional debt to pay back post fight. There’s also the dehydration that a fighter suffers. Most athletes will sweat around 2.5l per hour, but will rehydrate at around 1.6l per hour, so they will need to take on board fluids as soon as possible.
Research shows it’s not just the need for fluid that is important however – we also have to consider the electrolytes and minerals lost through sweat during a high intensity physical activity. With this in mind, simply rehydrating with water won’t be sufficient, you should consider using an isotonic sports drink to rehydrate post sport.
Rapid restoration of carbohydrates and muscle glycogen post combat is important too. The International Society of Sports Nutrition’s position is that if rapid restoration (within 4 hours of the event) of carbohydrate is required post exercise, supplementation at a rate of 1.2 g/kg/h is appropriate. This should be combined with caffeine at a dosage of 3–8 mg/kg.
There’s the protein requirement as well. Post exercise protein supplementation is important to help repair damaged muscle and connective tissue, especially when it has been stressed by both exertion and impact during combat. Studies show that a carbohydrate and protein mix is the most effective of all and the ISSN’s position is to combine carbohydrates (0.8 g/kg/h) with protein (0.2–0.4 g/kg/h).
Injury Healing and Hormonal Restoration
Post fight there is likely to be a lot of swelling, haematoma and general inflammation. In the immediacy it’s likely that the fighters’ cuts and physiotherapy team will address the acute injuries, bringing down swelling with ice or cold compresses, addressing any wounds and ensuring any larger cuts are stitched effectively.
Once the acute symptoms of injury have subsided, there is a next phase of rehabilitation, one that actually promotes blood flow to an area. This is an approach that allows an improvement of the mobility of joints, helps to speed the healing of soft tissues and also helps to protect against muscle loss (atrophy) whilst the body is undergoing less training post fight.
There is also a significant body of research that suggests regular sauna use promotes large releases of human growth hormone, a hormone that not only helps to build muscle tissue but also increases the rate of fat burn. When a fighter is in his post-fight recovery mode and is undergoing less training, this is a huge asset. The main other (legal) way of promoting HGH production and release is through high volume weight training, which obviously isn’t going to be high on the agenda immediately post-fight.
The other, non-obvious benefit of sauna use is that it is the ideal time to sit and reflect on the fight, spending time in your own head and breaking the bout down, assessing the good and bad of the contest and using it as a learning exercise.
Scientific Post-Fight Recovery
My purpose with this post was to point out some of the non-obvious yet critically important aspects of post-fight recovery. Even if you’re not a combat athlete yourself, I hope there are elements of the recovery that you can take with you and apply to your own sport, training, and recovery making you a better, more prepared athlete.