In the past few years, sports recovery has become a big business. Elite athletes and weekend warriors alike are spending lots of time and money on things like cryotherapy, float tanks, foam rolling, and supplements in order to feel better, push themselves harder, and gain an edge over the competition. But does any of this stuff actually do anything?
- Defining “recovery” from an athletics/exercise perspective
- How the emphasis on recovery has changed in the last few decades
- Why the science of recovery is hard to study
- How Gatorade came to be (and does it really do anything?)
- The truth on hydration
- What does the research say on the benefits of cold therapy?
- What about heat exposure?
- The role of stress on recovery
- Do float tanks really work?
- Why ritualizing your recovery — even if not necessarily backed by science — has benefits
- The risks of over-training
- The bottom line on all these recovery modalities
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Get Stronger by Improving Your Post-Workout Recovery
- A Beginner’s Guide to Trigger Point Release (aka Foam Rolling)
- How Your Climate-Controlled Comfort is Killing You
- How to Nail Your Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition
- The James Bond Shower: A Shot of Cold Water for Health and Vitality
- How Bad Do You Want It?
- A History of Exhaustion
- The Patriots’ Use of Float Tanks Leading to the Super Bowl
- Nap Like Salvador Dali
- Unleash the Power of the Nap
- What Every Man Should Know About Sleep
- 22 Ways to Get a Better Night’s Sleep
Connect With Christie
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. In the past few years, sports recovery has become a big business. Elite athletes and weekend warriors alike are spending lots of time and money on things like cryotherapy, float tanks, foam rolling, and supplements in order to feel better, push themselves harder, and gain an edge of the competition. But does any of this stuff actually do anything?
Well, my guest today has spent a year investigating the science of exercise recovery. Her name is Christie Aschwanden. She’s the author of the book Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery. We begin our show discussing what exactly athletic recovery is and why the recovery business has been booming recently. Christie and I then dig into several different recovery modalities from drinking Gatorades to taking ice baths to foam rolling and the science or the lack thereof behind their effectiveness. We end our conversation discussing what actually works best for exercise recovery, hint, we do every night and it’s free, whether you should spend your money on things like cryo spas and whether recovery methods can still be beneficial, even if they’re largely based on the placebo effect. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/recovery. Christie joins me now via clearcast.io.
Christie Aschwanden, welcome to the show.
Aschwanden: Thanks so much for having me.
Brett McKay: You had a book out, Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery. This is an investigative report into all this stuff that everyone’s probably seen out there about sports recovery like cryo spas, infrared saunas, foam rolling. Before we get to all these things, let’s talk about what we’re talking about when we’re talking about recovery because it’s sort of a broad thing. Is there a specific biological process that goes on in our body that can be considered recovery?
Aschwanden: That’s a really good question, and it’s kind of where I started when I began my whole process of reporting the book. I thought, “What do we even mean by recovery?” I guess at its most basic level, recovery is really a return to readiness. When you’re in the weight room lifting a weight, you’re not getting stronger. That muscle is not getting bigger and stronger in the moment when you’re lifting the weight. Those adaptations happen afterward. It’s your body, your muscles repairing the micro damage you did while lifting that heavy weight that makes the muscle stronger.
Recovery is really when the adaptations and all of the things that we think of as getting better and improving, and the reason we train in the first place. This stuff doesn’t happen while you’re exercising. It happens afterward. That, in a nutshell, is recovery.
Brett McKay: But you talk about in the book, you were an athlete in high school. You even did a stint as an elite cross country skier. I was an athlete. I played football in high school as well. Back in those days, and this is like 15, 20 years ago, people didn’t really talk about recovery. Did you notice that?
Aschwanden: Yeah. Yeah. This is really, I feel like it’s kind of the new frontier in sports research and sports products. Back in my day, the emphasis was really on high volume, so it was like the idea was you train as much as you can, and it was all about train, train, train. I think there’s a couple of things that have happened here. One is that there’s been this recognition that just stupid training as much as you can doesn’t work. You can only benefit from the training that you’re recovering from. The optimal way to train is not to do as much as you possibly can tolerate, but instead to do the least possible amount that you can do to get the adaptations and to get the benefits that you’re looking for. That’s the easiest on your body. It’s the way to avoid overtraining. It’s just the smartest way to train.
But then I think the second reason that we’ve seen this uptick in all of these recovery products is that this has just really become the new frontier in sports marketing. They kind of had created all these other products, so it was time to move on and create a new market for something. Recovery is just something that is so open to products because, really, the thing that you have to do to recover is wait. You have to rest and wait. People, athletes, I think in particular, are not very good at waiting. We’re antsy. We don’t like sitting still. We’re really prone to want to find things that are going to expedite this process.
Brett McKay: I think a lot of people too, and not only professional athletes, but weekend warrior types, they’re looking for anything to get an edge, to make them a little bit better.
Aschwanden: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think there’s also, this marketing really exploits this FOMO, the fear of missing out and this idea that there may be some little benefit that you’re missing. If you just did everything right, you can treat yourself, make these minor tweaks, and really optimize everything. I think that we just easily fall prey to that kind of marketing.
Brett McKay: You’re talking about, this is very market-driven, right? There’s opportunities to make money, but I mean, is there any research that has come out in the past couple of years that say, “No, there’s things you can do to help recovery along or improve it or speed up.” Is there any scientific research that says that?
Aschwanden: There’s a lot of research on recovery now. It is something that is being studied heavily by good researchers that are doing good work. So far, there’s no magic bullet, although I should back up. There is a magic bullet. It’s sleep, something that we don’t do very well, sleep and also rest, and by rest, I mean like what we mean in the traditional sense of not exercising, putting your feet up, relaxing.
These products and techniques and modalities and things, there are a lot of studies on many of them that show very small benefits. One of the fundamental issues with these studies though is that recovery’s just very hard to study, but it’s also very difficult to do a placebo-controlled trial on a lot of these things. I can’t give one group an ice bath and then make the other group think they’re getting an ice bath and they’re not. There just isn’t a placebo that you can do that will really mimic icing. It’s really hard to tease out the placebo effect from whatever physiological benefit might actually be coming from these things.
Brett McKay: Another limitation you found with a lot of these studies is that they’re very small. If they find a study that says X does this, there’s a benefit to this, but if you actually look at this study, there’s just 12 people they examined. You give an example that you tried to own experiment. I’ve heard the thing about if you drink beer after a run, that can help speed up recovery.
Aschwanden: Yeah. It seemed like a really simple question, why wouldn’t we be able to solve it or answer it with a simple study, and it turned out that it was much more complicated than I had expected, but the issue of the small sample size is a really important one, and it’s a problem that is pervasive throughout the sport science research.
I wanted to say here, this isn’t a matter of researchers are trying to do shoddy work or thinking that that’s okay or whatever, but it’s just, it can be really hard to get a big sample size. You’re asking human subjects to come into the lab. There’s a lot of testing that needs to go on before any of these tests to make sure you’re putting people in the right intensity zones and things like that, so there’s a lot of resources that go into recruiting someone for a study, and then if you’re studying elite athletes, there just may not be that many available. What’s more, if you’re trying to test some thing, how do you convince an elite athlete to take time off of their plan schedule and their plan training regimen to do the thing that you want them to do and, in fact, it may be that they’re going to get the placebo or they’re going to be in the control arm, so it might not even be that they’re getting the thing that may or may not be effective.
There are some inherent challenges, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. I mean, it’s almost like the laws of nature. You cannot extract a certain answer from a small sample. It’s just really hard, particularly when you’re looking at physiological variables that have some natural innate variability in them, so it could be really hard to tease out these differences.
The other thing that I think is important to point out is that, in sport, very tiny differences can make a meaningful difference. If you are a runner and there’s something that can give you a 2% edge, that’s huge. That could be the difference between winning and losing, being an also-ran. We’re interested in these very small effects, but those can be really hard to tease out. If you’re looking for something not small and you’re using a small sample size, it’s just an almost impossible problem.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about some of these modalities that you looked into. A big one that I think a lot of people saw a long time ago, and they probably experienced, was Gatorade, like being hydrated, but then moving on to Gatorade, and I thought it was interesting the development of Gatorade. It kind of happened by accident in a lot of ways. Tell us about the development of Gatorade, and is there any actually research that says if you drink Gatorade and get electrolytes, it’s going to help you improve performance.
Aschwanden: Yeah. To answer the first question, how is Gatorade produced, this is really interesting. It was a group of researchers in Florida. Basically, and this is sort of, it was interesting as I was research the book, I found that it was one of these situations where we had a lot of legend, and it was a little bit hard to tease out what really happened because everyone had their own version of the event, but basically, the football team was really having trouble in the heat. I mean, look, we all know that exercising in the heat is tricky and it’s challenge.
The coach supposedly came to some doctors and said, “My players are wilting in the heat. What can we do?” The solution was this drink that had a little bit of sugar and some salts. The legend has it that this turned the Gators around, they won the Orange Bowl, this really made the difference. Whether or not it was the Gatorade that was responsible for the win, it really created the advent of the sports drink.
What is the sports drink designed to do, and what are electrolytes said to do. The idea here is that as you’re sweating, you’re not just losing fluid, but you’re losing salts, and so that’s the idea behind having electrolytes in the drink. I’ll just say here that it’s important to note that electrolytes is just the scientific name for salts. It’s a name of ions. There’s nothing particularly special about electrolytes. I’ve talked to a lot of people that think, “Oh, but you really need electrolytes. You can only get them in sports drink.” It’s like, no, these are things that are in normal foods. I mean, you can get electrolytes from a banana. You can get it from most of the normal food that we eat. There’s nothing inherently special about electrolytes. This is just branding.
But the idea is that, in the heat, dehydration is a big factor, and heat illness. I think, as I sort of outline this in the book how as our research looking at hydration, it almost seemed as though heat illness was conflated with hydration. One thing that I found again and again while researching the book, I tried to find a document, a case of an athlete dying of dehydration on the field or at an event because we’re all told that dehydration is so dangerous. Did not find a single confirmed instance. What I did find is that hydration or dehydration is thrown around a lot. Anytime someone has trouble in the heat, I said, “Oh, the person is dehydrated,” but if you go and look at the records and what’s really going on, usually, that is not the factor responsible. It’s become a catch-all term, and we’ve assumed that if you’re exercising in the heat, dehydration is the thing that’s following people.
But these messages that have come from the sports drink companies, and now we have a bottled water and there’s all sorts of vested interest here in getting us to drink and consume more of these drinks is that you have to drink early and often and that you cannot trust thirst as a measure of whether it’s time to drink. What this has created is this situation where we now have people who are dying from drinking too much. I’ve never found a documented case of someone dying of dehydration in a marathon. There have been multiple people who’ve died during marathons or as a result of marathons from drinking too much. This is really, I mean, it’s a dangerous problem.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah. You also talk about how the body, yeah, thirst is probably the best way to gauge whether you need water or not because the body will naturally release more salts, if it needs more salts, or you’ll eat more food that has salts in it. The body takes care of itself. We don’t really have to do a lot to help it along.
Aschwanden: Yeah, and I think one of the big marketing messages, and I’m not attributing this to one single company, but it’s this idea that I think we have sort of, we’re at a moment where we have this idea in our culture that there’s this optimal state of being that we can get our bodies to and that this requires science and it requires calculation and measurements, but it turns out that our body’s physiology is really complex, and it’s really adaptable.
We are really quite able to exercise in heat and in variable conditions, and it’s true. When you exercise in the heat, you do need to drink more water. You sweat more. That’s absolutely true, but our bodies are also really good at conserving water in those situations, and when you’re exercising in the heat, your body’s holding on to water. There are some things in your kidneys that go on. They actually reabsorb water from the kidneys. There are these very sophisticated feedback mechanisms to product you, so you don’t need to have everything absolutely perfect and fixating on this kind of perfection. It’s kind of counterproductive because you’re focusing on the wrong things.
The best evidence-based guidance now for hydration is to simply drink to thirst. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t think about drinking. I think that some of the messages about this “drink early and often” kind of came from a well-meaning place because it is possible during an athletic event that you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you don’t think about your thirst signals or you’re not paying attention, and so you’ll become dehydrated. I’m not saying at all that it’s not possible to become dehydrated or we shouldn’t worry about it, but it’s really a matter of paying attention to how you’re feeling.
In the book, I argue that the most important skill that any athlete can develop is this ability to read their own bodies and read the signals that they’re getting, whether it’s hunger, thirst, fatigue, and to really understand what that means and on a personal level what those things feel like to you.
I’m not saying don’t think about drinking while you’re exercising, but I’m thinking, think about it, ask yourself, “Am I thirsty?” I mean, you’ve probably noticed that when you’ve been exercising in the heat and haven’t drank anything, and then you get that glass of water, it tastes so good. You can pay attention to things like that if you’re taking water and it’s not tasting so good and you don’t have the urge to down it, then you’re probably doing okay and you don’t need to worry about drinking to some schedule.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about another recovery modality. A big one is cold therapy. Athletes ice injuries. I remember when I was a kid, you got injured, you did the RICE. You rest, ice, compression, elevation. People sit in ice baths. They take cold showers, and people are doing cryotherapy. What does the research say about the benefits of cold therapy?
Aschwanden: Yeah, this is fascinating because, I mean, I just feel like ice baths and icing just go way back. I mean, this is one recovery modality that was very popular back in my time too. I mean, when I was bike racing, we used to go sit in ice baths right after a hard race, and we thought this was going to make us less sore and help us recover more, but it turns out that evidence is now saying … The idea behind icing, I should just back up for a moment. The idea here is that you’re reducing inflammation, and that’s going to help. That was sort of some of the thinking in terms of why it would help with soreness, but it turns out inflammation is a really important process of the healing process in recovery. Two things here. One, icing just temporarily reduces inflammation, so it does reduce inflammation, but as soon as you’re done icing, the circulation gets back, the inflammatory agents come back to the site, and so that process proceeds.
If you think about it in terms of you’ve done something to injure yourself, and you want that recovery process to go, you want it to go full-fledge from the get-go. You don’t want to delay it, and you don’t want to stop it. There’s actually some really interesting research. One study that I cite in the book where they actually put people on a weight training program on different ones, either there were, one of them I think was using arms, one was using legs, but they iced only one limb. What they found is that the ice limb actually made fewer adaptations, fewer strength gains. I think there was something with less protein being taken up by the muscles and everything, so there’s actually some evidence that it’s not just not helpful, but it might harm your recovery, or at least impede it a little bit.
Brett McKay: Yeah, as a barbell lifter, when I read that research, I’m like, “Yeah, no more cold stuff after I lift. I’m just going to let myself be inflamed for a bit because that’s part of the process of recovery.”
Aschwanden: Sure. I’ll just say here though that icing’s very good at numbing things, and it’s a good pain reliever, and it is something that … Some of the experts I talk to said it can still be good for people who are doing events where they’re having to perform again in short order where the idea, you were, the goal is not to recover and make adaptations but just recover to perform again right away, so you’re not going to expect that in those few hours, you’re going to get a lot stronger. You just want to address the fatigue and the pain. That would be the one situation where it might still be worth trying, but again, realizing that whatever adaptations you’re going to get from that exercise might be blunted.
Brett McKay: But what about cryo spas because you can do cold showers for free, ice is cheap, but there’s people who are spending a lot of money on cryo spas, and they’re claiming, “Oh, man. It’s helping me with my depression, reducing anxiety, I’m recovering faster.” I mean, has there been any actual research done on cryo spas?
Aschwanden: Yeah, there has been some. I’ll just say that the evidence for all this stuff is pretty thin. In fact, some of the claims being made were so egregious that the FDA actually had sent warning letters to at least one company telling them they had to stop some of these claims that were being made.
But I’ll just tell you, I tried cryotherapy, the cryo chamber while reporting the book, and I think that there’s something going on here. It gets you really cold. It’s very short. One thing that’s interesting is it doesn’t actually get your body as cold as an ice bath. If you think of it, and to me, this is sort of basic physics, the gas is surrounding you, so although it feels really cold, water is actually at better conductor of heat, and so your muscle will actually get colder in a traditional ice bath. There is a study I found that actually was measuring this. You’re not actually getting as cold, although it feels really, I mean, it does feel really cold, but I think that it’s that cold rush.
I have to tell you, I got out of that thing, and I felt like I was ready to kick ass. It’s just this really nice adrenaline rush. I can totally see how there might be psychological and mind benefits, which is not to say that there’s some special physiological thing going on but just that it feels like, “Whoa, I just survived some sort of epic thing, and now I feel ready to take on the world.”
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve done it before too. Yeah, I sit in there for like, it’s like three minutes, and you get out, and the blood starts flushing back down to your extremities. That feels good. I’ve never known, is this actually helping me lift more weight? I don’t know, but it felt nice. I will say that.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about the other extremes. There’s cold. What about heat? Is there any research about that heat has any benefit for recovery?
Aschwanden: Yeah, so I guess there’s two things here. One is that heat is a vasodilator, so it increases your circulation, so that may or may not be good. I mean, it could increase the, allow these inflammatory agents to come in and start doing their work and things like that, but it also makes you feel really good. Here, I just want to say that it’s really important to note that a lot of these modalities seem to be exploiting the placebo effect in one way or another. I think that that’s actually okay. The placebo effect is really powerful. It’s something that is enlisting your own body to do things. It can physiological benefits, and so one thing that I say is that anything that makes you feel better is good. It’s worth doing. That is a legitimate way of saying, “Is this helping with recovery?” If it makes you feel better, it makes you feel less fatigued, if it makes you feel relaxed, that’s good. That’s working.
Brett McKay: No, yeah. I mean, a lot of people fatigue. Let’s talk about, I mean, that’s interesting, fatigue is an interesting concept because we typically think of it as physiological, but a lot of fatigue, or sometimes, not a lot, but fatigue is also, there’s a psychological component. Your body might be physiologically be ready to do the work, but your brain isn’t.
Aschwanden: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s a really important part of recovery. I have a whole chapter on the psychological and mental aspect of recovery, which is something that I think a lot of athletes neglect at their own peril. The body stress’ stress, whether it’s coming from your workout or from the stress of your job or things going on at home, and so it’s really important that any good recovery plan addresses psychological stress as well and that you’re doing something to manage stress in your life because that stress taxes your body in the same way that exercise does. If you are doing all these things to try and recover from your workout, and yet, you’re living this very stressful life, you’re not going to have nearly the recovery you would otherwise if you had to dress that stress as well.
Brett McKay: Another modality that’s gotten really popular, and I actually, it’s funny, this week, I read an article with the Super Bowl. There was an article about the Patriots in float tanks, how Bill Belichick went to some special operations thing at the US Military and saw that they were doing an experiment with float tanks. For our listeners who aren’t familiar with it, what is a float tank and what’s supposed to be happening when sit in one of these things?
Aschwanden: Yeah, well, they used to call these things sensory deprivation chambers, so that tells you a little bit about what they’re about. They’ve now been rebranded as float tanks, and I think floating sounds much more pleasant, don’t you? But basically, you’re enclosing yourself in a small, dark quiet place. Most of these have no lights, or there’s a light that you turn off once you’re in. There’s no sound. The water is just a few inches deep, actually, but it’s very, very salty, so it makes your body very buoyant, and you float here, and it feels very effortless. Your body feels very weightless. The water is actually body temperature, so it doesn’t feel warm and it doesn’t feel cold. It’s just an, really interesting thing.
This is one of the things that I tried in service of the book. I thought, “Oh, this … ” I actually put it off even because I thought I was going to hate it so much. I really fell in love with it. In fact, it’s one of the few things that I tried during the writing of this book that I’ve continued to do. To me, it really feels like forced meditation. It’s a way to shut out all the distractions of the world, everything that’s buying for your attention, and to be just fully present in your body, relax the entire body. All of your muscles are just very relaxed. Your mind can be set free.
What I experienced in the float tank, to me, it really felt like that moment just as you’re falling asleep, if you’re familiar with that sensation, it’s sort of like that for an hour. I found it extremely helpful for stress relief and just feeling, I would come out of the float tank just feeling great and so relaxed.
Brett McKay: A lot of people said in this article that have, about the Patriots, they said that the reason they’re doing float tanks or encouraging them to do float tanks is that it helps sleep. Did you notice that, like it helped you have a better night sleep by relaxing in a float tank?
Aschwanden: Absolutely. In fact, the first time I tried it, I was on a business trip to San Francisco. I tried it at the place there. I usually sleep horribly the first night away from home. I mean, I never sleep as well when I’m not home, but particularly, the first night is usually terrible. I actually did the float tank the first day that I was there, and that night, I just slept so well. It really felt like that sense of relaxation carried over throughout the day.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve done the float tank a few times, and every time I’ve done it, I’ll feel really good, but then the last 15 minutes, I have to go pee all the time, like-
Aschwanden: Oh, no.
Brett McKay: Every time I’ve done it, I’ve … I’ve even gone to the bathroom, make sure I got it all out, but it’s still … I wonder if it’s the warm water thing, like you stick your hand, like as a teenager, you remember the prank-
Aschwanden: I could understand. I mean, there is that just, I can understand how that might happen because you’re just so relaxed, right?
Brett McKay: Right. Right. Well, I mean, so is there any research about float tanks that says this actually does something?
Aschwanden: Yeah, so there are a few studies that find benefits. There’s definitely been some benefits for sleep that have been found. Again, though, these studies are all small. I wouldn’t say that they’re definitive, but there are some pretty interesting evidence that they can help and that they can help calm both the sympathetic and parasympathetic system. In the book, I describe some research going on in the military lab looking at this stuff, so it looks very promising.
Brett McKay: Another thing that’s come up that you see that didn’t exist 10 years ago or 15 years ago was foam rolling, people rolling themselves out. This has become as normal as stretching. What are the supposed benefits of foam rolling, and does it actually do anything?
Aschwanden: Yeah, people love, I mean, I have to say, people who love foam rolling really love it. I can’t tell you how many people have said, “I want to read your book. Just tell me, assure me that it’s not going to tell me not to foam roll,” because they like it so much.
The idea here is that the fascia, which is sort of like, I’ve heard it described to me almost like a saran wrap around the tissues. The idea is that it might get some adhesions or spots that are sticky there, and so that idea is that you’re smoothing these out. Whether or not that’s true is sort of the subject of a lot research right now. I would say that the research on fascia, which is really what foam rolling is trying to target here, this fascia tissue, is a really interesting but I would say sort of a frontier where there’s a lot of research and intriguing ideas, but there’s still a ton of uncertainty, so they’re really still working out what’s going on here.
Whether or not these are actually, foam rolling is actually working out adhesions isn’t very certain, but there’s some really intriguing evidence that foam rolling and this sort of massage may actually work via the neurological system. It’s really fascinating. There’s some studies showing that if you foam roll one leg, you’ll see benefits in the other too. It’s sort of suggesting that there’s some sort of neural component here that maybe what you’re doing is reducing the muscle’s excitability or something neurological in how you’re sensing, how you’re feeling there, which is a very real thing, but how it’s working is still, there’s a lot of research now going on to work out what’s going on here, but I don’t think we have hard and firm answers yet.
But to people that say, “I love foam rolling. Should I keep doing it?” I say, “Sure, if it’s helping you and you like it, go ahead.” That’s where it gets me to another point, which is that I think that another benefit that a lot of these modalities or things, whether it’s foam rolling or icing or whatever, one thing that they do for people is they provide a ritualized way to recover or to focus or to take some time out to say, “Okay, I am going to do something now for recovery. I’m going to take a time-out.” You’re not doing anything else. You’re just, if you’re rolling out your leg or whatever, you’re not running around, you’re not doing the next thing, but you’re resting. I think that that in and of itself has a tangible benefit.
Brett McKay: I think a lot of particularly high-end athletes, they have a bias towards action.
Brett McKay: Sitting around doing nothing doesn’t sound, like, “I’m not doing anything, but well, if I do this foam rolling rather than sitting, that’s something I’m doing,” but you’re actually, the something you’re doing is actually nothing. You’re just resting and chilling out.
Aschwanden: Yeah, I mean, taking a nap is a really ideal way to recover if you can do it. I have never been able to nap. I’ve never been a napper, but I know now after researching this book that it’s a fabulous way and, in fact, naps have become really trendy among athletes. Mikaela Shiffrin, a World Cup badass skier is a huge nap fan, the NBA, word on the street is that you don’t call NBA players mid afternoon because that’s when they’re napping. This is something that is taking off, and there’s very, very good evidence and napping is helpful, and sleep in general. If you don’t master sleep, all this other stuff don’t even bother with it because you’re not going to get nearly the benefits you could from just getting good, solid sleep.
Brett McKay: Well, yeah, that’s when your body repairs itself is during sleep time.
Aschwanden: Yeah, I mean, that is actually the purpose of, I mean, well, the purpose of sleep, that’s a whole, it’s really this science of sleep is a really fascinating topic in and of itself, but it’s very clear that this is an important time for our bodies to heal themselves and to recuperate, so you skimp on it at your own peril.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, I think growth hormone is released, testosterone is released when you sleep, other hormones are released to help with recovery. Sleep’s the big one, big, big one. You also talk about in this book this idea of overtraining. There’s people who they’ve worked so hard, they’ve trained so hard that their body doesn’t seem to be able to recover. They’re just constantly, they’ve hit a plateau, and they’re not going anywhere. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Aschwanden: Yeah, sure. I think this is, I mean, it’s almost, by nature, athletes are very driven. Overtraining is basically … The trend now is to call it under-recovery rather than overtraining. It’s not that … The concept here is that you can only benefit from the training that you’re recovering from. Where that line stands is very individual. There seems to be some sort of innate component to tolerance of training, but at some point, you stop responding to the training, and when you do that, you can really go over the line. In fact, athletes who become overtrained like this, I mean, they just get cooked to the point where it can be career-ending in many cases. It can at least be season-ending. That’s pretty common. But basically, it happens when people are training, training, training and not recovering from it in between workouts.
One of the challenges here is that there isn’t any tangible, like I can’t give you a rule, like, “If you do this, you’ll be fine, and if you do that, you’ll be overtrained.” It’s very individual, and some people are able to tolerate more training than others are. This goes back to the idea of, as an athlete, you have to learn to read your body and figure out what cues it’s sending you when it’s feeling a bit cooked and when it’s feeling like … What does it feel like when you’re responding to training, and what does it feel like when you’re just getting the fatigue that’s saying, “No, you’re not going to come back from this.”
Brett McKay: I mean, do some people are able to eventually recover, or does it take six months, a year, couple of years?
Aschwanden: Yeah, that’s a reasonable time frame, I’d say. Six months is pretty typical. A year is not at all unusual. It does end some careers. I have in the book an anecdote about a world-class marathoner who never seemed to be able to pull out of the overtraining hole he dug himself, but then I also have a story about a triathlete who is similarly overtrained and just, the key for him was to give it up and let it go and stop worrying about training and give his body the time he needed to relax and recover, and then just very gradually work back up.
One of the traps that the overtrained athlete falls into is thinking, “Well, okay, I’m overtrained now. I’m going to rest a little bit, but now, I need to get back. I had all this. I was so fit, and I need to get back to it.” It’s like, no, no, there’s no way to go from overtrained to optimally trained. You have to rest to where you’re starting from zero again. That’s just the reality. You can try to deny it, but there’s no, the route from overtrained to ideally trained has to start again at square one. I think that’s the thing that most people just loathe to admit to themselves.
Brett McKay: It sounds like the bottom line with most of these recovery modalities is that physiologically, it might do something, maybe, but it seems like most of it is just, it feels good, and that helps with recovery. Would that be the conclusion?
Aschwanden: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that’s one of the bottom lines here is that anything that helps you rest and recover and feel good is good for recovery. That is what’s happening.
Brett McKay: You talk about the power of placebo. You even highlight research that says even when people know that it’s a placebo, it still works.
Aschwanden: Yeah. Absolutely. I think we dismiss the placebo effect unnecessarily. Look, I am not advocating that people get scammed or that you spend a lot of money or effort or time on something that’s not working. At the same time, the placebo effect is real, and if you can exploit it and really tap into it, do it. I mean, it will help. There’s a lot of evidence actually that so many of these modalities and things that people do really do get a lot of their power from the placebo effort or … It’s also called the expectation effect. I actually like that term better because it gets a little bit more to the heart of what’s going on here, and that is you’re expecting this thing to work. You’re gearing up for it to work and expecting it. Placebo effect seems to be particularly potent on things that are by nature qualitative, so things like soreness or fatigue where it’s sort of a matter of how you are processing these feelings and how you’re interpreting them.
If I ask you how sore you are, there’s not some magic measure that we can take with a watch or a gauge or something. I mean, that’s something where you are integrating all of the sensory inputs that you’re getting. Part of that is an expectation of how does this compare to how I expect to feel? If you’re expecting to feel better, it may just be that that’s enough to feel better, and I think that’s okay.
Brett McKay: Right. Let’s recap here. There’s other modalities that are in the book that we haven’t talked about, but the recap of our conversation, what we know works for recovery definitely is sleep for sure.
Aschwanden: Yes, absolutely. Nothing else even comes close.
Brett McKay: What about, I mean, I guess nutrition too plays a role. If you’re not getting enough food to give your body the nutrients it needs to recover, then you’re probably not going to recover as much.
Aschwanden: Yeah. That’s right. Nutrition’s important, but here again, I think that we sort of tend to have outsized expectations of what nutrition can do for us. It’s really important to eat a balanced diet. You need to replenish carbs. It’s really important to get protein as an athlete, but the idea that there’s some magical food or some magical nutrient that’s going to make all the difference is probably misplaced, and so it’s important to pay attention to nutrition.
One thing that I found while researching this is that one of the common problems that’s starting to gain more attention in the sporting world is this thing called REDS, which is, what is it called? Relative energy deficiency syndrome? I believe that’s the acronym. It’s R-E-D-S. But basically, this is when the athlete is training really hard and not doing enough to replenish the energy, so they’re sort of under-nourishing themselves and under-nourishing their workouts. This is particularly a problem in sports like running where athletes are striving to stay light and lean. The problem is that if you’re not eating enough and you’re not taking in enough protein and enough nutrients that you can actually start breaking down muscles, and your recovery process is just severely impaired. For recovery, it is really important to get good nutrition and to make sure that you’re fueling your workouts.
Brett McKay: All right, so well-balanced diet, nothing fancy. Supplements-
Aschwanden: Nothing fancy.
Brett McKay: Supplements aren’t probably going to give you these special edge, like there’s no special, if you take tumeric or whatever, I know that’s said that it reduces inflammation, but probably not going to do much for you, unless you think it does, right?
Aschwanden: Right. Right. I have a whole chapter in the book about supplements. I guess the takeaway is just don’t. There’s no good reason. There’s not compelling evidence that this stuff makes a big difference, but even more worryingly is that there are a lot of athletes now who are testing positive from supplements because there are issues oftentimes with sourcing and things being tainted. This isn’t even necessarily that there are companies … I mean, there are some really shady companies out there, but there are also companies that may seem outstanding, and some of this just traces back to the sourcing. If you’re getting something that was produced somewhere where some banned substance was also produced, I mean, things can just get tainted. It just isn’t worth it.
Brett McKay: Definitely. Get sleep. Eat a well-balanced diet. Then there’s other things like, I guess, pick whichever ones you like and that are in your budget would be-
Aschwanden: Yeah, exactly.
Brett McKay: Well, Christie, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Aschwanden: Sure. The book, you’ve got a website, goodtogobook.com. It’s www.goodtogobook.com. My personal website, my name’s Christie, C-H-R-I-S-T-I-E, Aschwanden, A-S-C-H-W-A-N-D-E-N dot com. You can find my work at FiveThirtyEight by just going there, fivethirtyeight.com.
I also just want to make a quick plug. I have a new podcast coming out. We’re launching in about a week or two. Hopefully, in a week. We’ll see. It’s called Emerging Form, and it’s a podcast about the creative process. My co-host is a poet, and we talk about all things having to do with creativity, but I think that there’s some stuff that applies to athletes too. Our first season has an episode where we discuss talent and whether it’s necessary and can you overcome a lack of talent. I think the discussion carries over, and in fact, we do talk about sport in the episode as well, and that’s at-
Brett McKay: Fantastic.
Aschwanden: … emergingform.com.
Brett McKay: Emerging Form, we’ll put that in our show notes, link to there. Well, Christie Aschwanden, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Aschwanden: Oh, my pleasure too. Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Christie Aschwanden. She’s the author of the book Good to Go. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website christieaschwanden.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/recovery where you can find links to resource where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles in just about anything personal finance, physical fitness, social skills. You name it, we’ve got it. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.