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AFL's physicality poses unique questions over player recovery

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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 WNBA side Deakin Melbourne Boomers - both believe AFL presents unique challenges in terms of recovery, especially in shorter breaks 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," Condo told ESPN. "I also work in basketball ... and that often involves a shorter break [for players] - 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."

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 told ESPN. "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 expects Essendon to have no issues taking on Melbourne on the back of a five-day break after the Bombers eventually overpowered traditional rival Collingwood in a typically physical clash at a sodden MCG on Anzac Day.

The Demons themselves played on Anzac Eve - going down to Richmond at the MCG - giving them an extra day to prepare for the Dons clash.

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.

"I think some of the concern [about five-day breaks] is over the top. We're playing on Sunday against Melbourne, and they had a tough game on Monday night, so we're not terribly uncomfortable with our ability to get up after five days."

Condo says the initial 48 hours are vital in terms of refueling 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."

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."

Crow says he ensures Essendon players focus on the "basics" of food, sleep and cold water immersion in between games.

He added the recovery process began almost as soon as a match had finished.

"We regularly [assess] research and touch base with the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport] to review best practice recovery," he says. "Because of the short week [between the Collingwood and Melbourne matches], we set out a specific process that we started straight after the game.

"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."