Updated: Sep 2, 2022
I started reading Christie Aschwanden’s book ‘Good To Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery’ after completing a six day, 276-mile cycling trip in the French Alps, on which I ascended a cumulative total of nearly 40,000 vertical feet, propelled only by human-powered pedaling. As someone who averaged 20 miles per week of cycling in 2021, it seemed an apt time to read about recovery science.
Aschwanden’s book is well-researched, well-written, easy to read and comprehensive. Unfortunately, if you are looking for some good recovery hacks to add to your program, you won’t be scrambling to change much after reading this book. That is because, to her credit, Aschwanden takes a measured and objective look at each recovery tactic, evaluating the evidence and even evaluating her own emotional response to the experience of testing the various strategies. In summary, (spoiler alert) there is almost no definitive evidence to support the widespread use of recovery modalities popularized by elite athletes, media and industry. The book is sprinkled with anecdotes about the tactics and techniques of various elite athletes. My favorite anecdote was about how Usain Bolt consumed massive amounts of McDonald’s chicken nuggets as his recovery food during the Beijing Olympics!
“Again and again, as I looked into the science, I found that research on most recovery modalities is thin and incomplete.” - Susan Aschwanden
Some salient take away points that I found interesting:
Nutrition and hydration:
Almost all studies of sports drinks have utilized a small sample size and have been designed with a bias to find benefit of the product being tested
Weight loss/fluid loss is normal during prolonged exercise. You don’t need to replace fluids as they are lost. Drink to thirst, not a programmed fluid consumption schedule.
Topping up hydration pre-competition may even be detrimental (by causing kidneys to downregulating proteins that promote water resorption)
Post workout replenishment (including electrolytes) can be easily accomplished with food and water
The post workout nutrition ‘window’ is overblown, and probably only necessary when a second workout is planned for the same day. Nothing critical about getting refueled in the first 20 or 30 minutes post workout.
Sorry, Gatorade Sports Science Institute!
No conclusive evidence of benefit of icing, and it may even impair or slow recovery by suppressing the body’s natural inflammatory response. Like the immediate refuel, it may help recovery between same day events. This was a tough section for me to read. I’m now less enthusiastic/meticulous about post workout ice baths, but I still believe in the mental benefits of cold therapy and the important role of cold therapy in controlling postoperative pain.
Massage and foam rolling:
The evidence to support them is largely absent, in part because they are hard to study, but there probably is some benefit, though not because they ‘clear toxins’ or ‘increase blood flow.’ I definitely will continue to utilize these two!
There is a small benefit for performance and recovery. I am definitely one for the graduated compression socks for OR days or after a long run.
May reduce cortisol levels and delayed onset muscle soreness. I haven't tried this one but I am open to giving it a try.
The most powerful and evidence-supported recovery tool. Amen to that!
High risk of contamination. I’ve stopped using these (other than vitamin D) in an effort to eat more whole foods and less processed food, but the widespread evidence of contamination she highlights here gives another reason to avoid!
No benefit to performance or recovery. I am still a believer in doing mobility work, whether it’s yoga or another discipline, though not necessarily as post work out recovery and certainly not static stretching as part of pre work out warm up.
Lots of metrics and gadgets to be bought and sold offer ways to assess recovery but “subjective measures trump objective ones when it comes to measuring recovery.” I agree. I still like some good objective data points (lately I am tracking heart rate variability) but I try to take them as just one contribution to the whole assessment of my readiness.
As she concludes, “I’ve come to think that different recovery modalities just represent variations on the same few approaches to recovery – soothing your muscles and body so you feel better (even if nothing is actually changing in a physiological sense), providing a ritual for taking care of yourself that gives you a sense of autonomy and self-efficacy (what many people think of as being proactive), and finally, creating a formalized way to stop everything else and help you focus on resting.”
I couldn’t agree more. We need to achieve balance in our approach to fitness as in other areas of our lives, and sometimes, for those who like to train hard, this means practicing restraint. If you’re interested in optimizing your athletic performance, I think you’ll enjoy this book on the recovery aspect of it.