Josh Nelson currently serves as the Assistant Athletic Director for Applied Health and Performance Science at Penn State University. There, he leads areas of sport science and performance education and works to connect all areas of the university community—including athletics, academics, and key stakeholders—around high performance. Nelson previously spent time as a strength and conditioning coach at Baylor University and Emory & Henry College. He completed his doctorate degree at West Virginia University.
Freelap USA: What is your take on cold/ice as a recovery element/modality?
Josh Nelson: I truly think that every tool has a place and a job—the more tools I have, the more solutions there are at my disposal. That does not mean that a single tool should be used for every situation or that every tool needs to be used in a single case.
As with all our tools, I think that cold/ice has its place with recovery. It is extremely available in most facilities, and athletes are often accustomed to using it. I do think that there is a time and a place to allow inflammation to run its course in the natural process of healing and adaptation—I tend to like to utilize cold/ice during times of the year when we really need to combat inflammation.I do think that there is a time and a place to allow inflammation to run its course in the natural process of healing and adaptation, says @DrCoachNelly. Click To Tweet
This goes back to a principles-based decision-making system: If we know the specific goal of the time of year, that then dictates what recovery we choose. For example, if we are in the off-season, and the primary goal is development, there may be room for inflammation to run its course and to contribute to the healing and tolerance-building process. On the flip side, if we are in the middle of a season, and the primary goal is readiness on Saturday, we need to do anything and everything we can to get the athlete to feel good for game day.
I also think that there is some merit in not using a single recovery tool on a day-to-day basis. While this may be tough for certain units that do not have the resources to accommodate teams with many different options, I feel that being selective with how and when we use our tools will actually increase their effectiveness when we do use them. From a day-to-day perspective, I think we should focus on sound habits revolving around sleep and nutrition.
Freelap USA: How do you approach the mind-body aspect of recovery and athlete well-being in general?
Josh Nelson: When we are talking development or recovery, it is important to consider how our body manages stressors—especially as it pertains to adaptation. Regardless of the direction or type of stimulus (e.g., physical, mental, social), our bodies will interpret and treat the stressor in a similar way by ramping up physiological processes that will allow the body to survive. It is also important to consider that these stimuli that cause the response can come from an outside source (e.g., physical, environmental) or an internal source (e.g., mental, emotional).
When we think about the training and recovery experiences we create for our athletes, it is crucial for us to be able to see the whole athlete experience and all the directions they are pulled. This is where a long-term calendar or annual plan can really be beneficial. On the annual plan, we can put all stressors that may impact our athletes at that point in the year (e.g., pre-season practice, mid-terms, travel, holidays). Then, as we start to look more closely at specific weeks and days, we can begin to be more precise and individualized with the recovery programming that we prescribe.
I also think there is a time and a place to teach athletes about key principles of training, adaptation, and recovery. We have many athletes who will be moving on to play at the next level, and even more who will one day become parents and teach their children the basics of sport. Surrounding them with this information allows them to be more informed, to make better decisions, and to be more invested in their personal development. With that, we work to involve athletes (and coaches) with conversations pertaining to the “why” behind what we do. An important note is that we do not use direct styles of teaching or lectures to provide this information, but rather authentic experiences embedded in organic conversations and interactions with our athletes and staff.During the time away from our normal operations due to COVID-19, we’ve had a lot of success with teaching recovery (and activation) through a principles-based approach, says @DrCoachNelly. Click To Tweet
I think a lot of recovery modalities have their place if we break them down to their principles. During the time we have been away from our normal operations due to COVID-19, we have had a lot of success with teaching recovery (and activation) through a principles-based approach. If we really dig down deep into each recovery tool, we can then begin to understand the actual impact that it has on our bodies. Once we understand this, we can refine when and how we may use the recovery system and then also find alternatives if we run into a situation when it is not available (e.g., travel, weather, worldwide pandemic).
A principles-based approach to using recovery tools:
- Understand the impact the current training has on the body as a system.
- Examples: heavy CNS load, heavy metabolic load, recovery load
- Organize recovery (or activation) tools that you have available by what they do.
- Examples: target sympathetic/parasympathetic, reduce inflammation, restore energy stores
- Pair recovery (or activation) tool with the physical/mental stressor that the athlete has encountered.
- Examples: Pair energy-dense fueling opportunities following metabolically demanding training exposures
My approach to athlete development and performance science revolves around the holistic development of the athlete and the person. Athletes must be able to build tolerance in order to prepare and compete at a high level. This is accomplished through the application of appropriate physical and mental stress, a great lifestyle, and sound recovery principles. None of these three areas exist in isolation but rather as an interconnected system that has both the athlete and the coach as driving players. While it is the responsibility of the athlete to have positive habits as it relates to preparation, lifestyle, and recovery, it is the duty of the coach to provide dynamic and developmentally appropriate environments for athletes to learn and grow.
Freelap USA: Do you have any recovery pieces you utilize that you would consider “nontraditional” in nature?
Josh Nelson: While I always consider the “why” behind different recovery tools, I try to continually explore new options and keep an open mind with new tools that may become available. I do not currently utilize very many nontraditional tools, but rather I encourage athletes to find ways to achieve recovery by balancing their perceived sympathetic and parasympathetic states. The off-season can provide great opportunities for athletes to explore new tools and see how they may fit into their personal toolbox.The bottom line here is that we aren’t relying on any one tool, but rather the principle of moving to a recovery state, says @DrCoachNelly. Click To Tweet
If we can find a recovery system that allows a sympathetically charged athlete to move to a more relaxed parasympathetic state following training, we are working in the right direction. Examples of this may be simply switching the tempo of music, walking barefoot on grass, or even drinking a caffeine-free tea before bedtime. The bottom line here is that we are not relying on any one tool, but rather the principle of moving to a recovery state.
Freelap USA: What are some of the more overrated forms of recovery that exist? What are some of the most underrated?
Josh Nelson: I think the most underrated forms of recovery exist within our lifestyle and habits. Too often we focus on external objects to solve a problem or to give us an edge. If we can first start with sound decisions as they pertain to sleep, nutrition, and positive choice in our everyday lives, it will set us up with a wonderful foundation for development. Once we have that set, I think we can begin to individualize our recovery for the specific situation or time of year. The bottom line is that habits and lifestyle are not only some of the most underrated forms of recovery, they are also some of the most underrated forms of development in our careers.Habits and lifestyle are not only some of the most underrated forms of recovery, they are also some of the most underrated forms of development in our careers, says @DrCoachNelly. Click To Tweet
As far as tools or systems that are overrated, I think that everything has a time and a place. If we can focus on the “why” and the principles associated with everything we do, everything will have its place.
Freelap USA: What are some ideas in regard to integrating a total stress-recovery plan into your work with the coaches in your department?
Josh Nelson: When working to balance work and recovery within the annual plan, it is important for everyone to respect the impact that stress (from any direction) has on athlete readiness and development. This lens allows us to have a progressive plan and to pair complementary experiences together. At the end of the day, development is like a puzzle—we must fit all the pieces together!
As far as integrating these concepts across an entire department, I feel as though I always need to be learning and seeking understanding from other staff members as opposed to instructing them on the specifics of loading and recovery. Personally, I want to talk about the planning and application of load all day—I love it! At the end of the day, however, I first need to understand the reasons behind what already exists and then the specifics of each coach’s style before I make a change or push to install a personal model. Through this process, I really like to be consistent in sharing manageable chunks of content, data, or real-life examples with the goal of creating a common language and cultivating conversation.
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