Author Christie Aschwanden dives into what’s serious and what’s a sham among recovery methods.
By Amby Burfoot
Famed Oregon coach Bill Bowerman long ago advised runners to follow a “hard day, easy day” training pattern for optimal success. In the last decade, that focus on recovery seems to have amplified, with not only coaches and exercise scientists but also supplement companies and high-tech equipment manufacturers touting their methods for rebounding from workouts faster and stronger than ever. But what really works?
For some answers, we now have Christie Aschwanden’s new book, Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.
I say “mostly” only because Aschwanden tests many of the procedures on our behalf and reports her own personal experiences with the recovery methods. Because if you wrote a book like this, it would be hard not to try the relaxing massages, meditation chambers, and warming baths yourself, right? Aschwanden goes the extra yard when she steps into a cryotherapy machine that practically turns her into an ice cube.
But not to worry. Aschwanden, a former contributing editor to Runner’s World and current lead science writer at FiveThirtyEight.com, never loses sight of the gap between anecdote and randomized trial. Ultimately, she pins her conclusions on the best studies in each field, as well as her interviews with highly-regarded researchers.
The author comes honestly to her writing about sports. She was a high school mile champion in Colorado and ran for the University of Colorado until a knee injury forced a transition to cycling. After college, she continued cycling as well as cross-country skiing, and raced across North America and Europe for the Rossignol ski team. Suffice to say, she knows first-hand how important recovery is for practice and competition.
Here, Aschwanden spoke with Runner’s World to answer a few questions about her new book.
Runner’s World: How did you hit on recovery as a topic for a science-of-sport book?
Christie Aschwanden: I’ve often heard this common bit of writing wisdom: Write the book you want to read. Good to Go is the book I wish I’d read when I was a competitive athlete. Looking back, I can see that recovery was the thing I never managed to get quite right. I had a natural talent for responding quickly to training, but I also needed more rest than some other athletes. It took me a long time to understand and respect that. I wish I’d known then what I know now, after researching and writing this book.
We’ve been told recovery is important, but what is it?
What’s recovery? That’s the million dollar question. The most basic definition is that it’s a return to readiness after a hard bout of exercise. It’s your body’s process of repairing damage from vigorous exercise and producing adaptations that will make you stronger and faster for the next workout.
Can anyone measure it?
That’s tough to answer, because recovery encompasses so many things. There’s no single physiological measure—not heart rate, body temperature, or hydration status—that will tell you whether or not you’re recovered. What I learned in reporting this book is that researchers have tested dozens of physiological factors that might be related to recovery, but so far nothing has outperformed the subjective, qualitative measure of: How do you feel? The answer to that question is far more predictive than any number on a smart watch.
How can runners judge what is valuable and what is hokus pokus?
An easy rule of thumb is: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. There’s no magic, so be skeptical of products that make big claims.
What’s a recovery method whose advertising exceeds the evidence?
You should be skeptical about anything that promises to work by flushing out lactic acid. We used to think that lactic acid made us sore (that’s what my high school track coach told me), but we now know that’s not the case. Lactic acid doesn’t cause muscle soreness, and it clears pretty quickly on its own. By the time a runner has a chance to use anything that claims to flush out lactic acid, the lactic acid is probably gone. It doesn’t need any help.
Runners used to reach for carbs all day long. Now, low-carb, high-fat diets seem very popular, and ageing runners are told to consider more protein. Any thoughts?
It’s really hard to study nutrition’s effects on health and performance. When I was researching Good to Go, I found that our beliefs about optimal diet and post-exercise fuel have a large cultural component. Nutritional fads come and go, and then come again. All of the diets making the rounds today have been out there in some form for a long time, and I have yet to see convincing studies that there’s a magic diet for enhancing performance.
People perform well on a wide range of diets. There does seem to be some evidence, still preliminary, that protein becomes more important as you get older. Time will tell if that idea stands up to further scrutiny.
What’s an example of a recovery tool or system that seems to work well?
Sleep! Nothing else even comes close. It may seem boring and obvious, but many people struggle to get it right. Also, in our current culture where so many things are constantly vying for our attention, it’s easy to get lured into skimping on sleep. In my book, I talk about an athlete who was getting up in the middle of the night to check on rugby scores. It sounds ridiculous, yet a lot of us fall into some version of this, whether it’s a Netflix show we binge on late at night or work emails we answer when we should be sleeping.