Christie Aschwanden

Christie Aschwanden: The Strange Science Of Recovery

Share This Article

About This Episode:

In this week’s episode, we delve into the confusing world of sports recovery with acclaimed science journalist Christie Aschwanden, exploring some of the key takeaways from her book Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.

Guest Bio – Christie Aschwanden:

Christie Aschwanden is an award-winning science journalist. She was the lead science writer at FiveThirtyEight for many years and is a former health columnist for the Washington Post. A finalist for the National Magazine Award, her writing has appeared in Outside, Discover, Smithsonian, and Oprah Magazine. She’s also co-host of Emerging Form, a podcast about the creative process. She was a high school state champion in the 1,600-meter run, a national collegiate cycling champion, and an elite cross-country skier with Team Rossignol. She lives and occasionally still races in western Colorado.

Read More About Christie Aschwanden:

https://christieaschwanden.com/

https://twitter.com/cragcrest

Book Link – Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery

Episode Highlights:

  • Mastering the fundamentals of recovery
  • Identifying pseudoscientific claims
  • Recovery vs. recovering
  • The body’s ability to perform under sub-optimal situations

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.


Thanks To This Week’s Sponsors:

Stages Cycling

This episode of the TrainRight Podcast is brought to you by Stages Cycling, the industry leader in accurate, reliable and proven power meters and training devices.

Stages Cycling offers the widest range of power meter makes and models to fit any bike, any drivetrain and any rider, all manufactured in their Boulder, Colorado facility. They’ve expanded their offerings to include the Stages Dash line of innovative and intuitive GPS cycling computers covering a full range of training and workout-specific features to make your workouts go as smooth as possible.

And for 2020 Stages is applying its decade of indoor cycling studio expertise to the new StagesBike smart trainer. Check out their latest at www.stagescycling.com and use the coupon code CTS20OFF all caps at checkout for 20% off.

 

CTS

This episode of the TrainRight Podcast is brought to you by CTS Bucket List Events. These premier cycling experiences are for athletes yearning for life-changing, epic challenges that leave you with a lifelong sense of accomplishment.

CTS’ featured Bucket List Event coming up this May 2020 is the Golden State Epic. 

This spectacular ride will feature 6 of the best hand-selected routes in California that will take you through towering redwood trees, world-famous wine country, by sweeping ocean views, and over epic mountain passes.   

Visit trainright.com/bucket-list/events to learn more about the Golden State Epic and other Bucket List Events CTS has to offer. 


Episode Transcription:

Adam Pulford:

(music) Christie, welcome to the show.

Christie Aschwanden:

Thanks for having me. Pleasure to be here.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you so much for taking time out of your day, out of your Colorado day. It looks like you’re outside.

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah. I didn’t realize we were doing video. I’ve got my Carhartts on and my ski hat and I’m stoking the wood fire here. So, it’s quite cold here today, coldest day of the year actually so far.

Adam Pulford:

Oh my gosh. Well, I have to say, the wood fire sounds great, but I’m enjoying not being frozen over here in Washington DC.

Christie Aschwanden:

It’s not good weather for bicycling, I’ll tell you that.

Adam Pulford:

That’s all right. Well, I just wanted to dive right in because you wrote here, it’s called Good to Go and in there, you talk about the latest and greatest on all things recovery and a little bit more, which we’ll get into, but I want to ask you, what inspired you to write this book?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, so there’s a couple of answers to that. The first is just that I was an elite athlete for a lot of my life. I’m not anymore, these days I’m just a recreational athlete. I don’t actually like to exercise. I like to do fun stuff outside, so I just try to keep as fit as I need to, to be able to do the stuff I like to do.

Christie Aschwanden:

But, I was in college. I was a runner at a division one school, then got injured. I started cycling and realized I really loved that, so I joined the cycling team. Did that for a few years after college to really enjoy. That’s something I continue. Running and cycling are things I continue to do to this day. And then, I also learned to cross country ski in college. That was something I had never done before, being from New Mexico.

Christie Aschwanden:

Anyway, I love that, and after college, actually it was right after I finished this graduate program in journalism, I thought, “I really like skiing.” My husband at the time was a serious bike racer and he was out doing stuff, and I thought, “I want to do that too.”

Christie Aschwanden:

So, I started cross country skiing, ended up getting on a trade team, and I did that at a pretty high level for about eight years. Anyway, when I look back on my career, what I see is that recovery was the one thing that I never managed to master. It was really my Achilles heel. It was the thing that probably kept me from reaching my full potential as an athlete.

Christie Aschwanden:

And so, it’s something that I learned through the school of hard knocks. There’s this saying in writing that you should write the book that you want to read and this is the book I wish I had had back then, when I was in my 20s doing all of this stuff. So, that’s one answer to the question.

Christie Aschwanden:

But, the other answer is that, so now I’m a science journalist, so I do writing on all types of science, but I do a lot of writing about sports science, and I’m constantly getting press releases and things about all of these new products that are being sold with all these scientific claims and I thought, “This stuff has really changed a lot since I was serious athlete,” and I was interested in digging in and seeing does any of this stuff hold up? Are these scientific claims accurate, and has recovery really changed that much since I was an athlete?

Christie Aschwanden:

When I was an athlete, people understood that recovery was important, but I think there was less emphasis. It was no longer something that you spent so much time and effort doing. It was really just rest. And now, it’s become the real extension of training itself.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah, well, that’s it 100%, because I’ll admit when I read this book, it affirmed what I’ve been doing in my coaching practice in some realm, but I also learned quite a bit along the way too, in terms of maybe implementing something a little bit differently or communicating in different ways, of which we’ll get into here in a minute. But, what I want to do now is take a deeper dive into a few of the items, touch on some of the highlights of the book, and really just go for it.

Christie Aschwanden:

Okay. Sounds good.

Adam Pulford:

All right. So, the first element is, and I loved how you open up the book in terms of recovery versus recovering. And, you talk about how recovery, so it’s a noun or it’s a verb, or it’s both. So, tell us more of that.

Christie Aschwanden:

So, I write in the book that when I was an athlete in ’90s and 2000s, recovery was a noun. It was the state of being that you hope to obtain through all the things that you weren’t doing. It was about resting and putting your feet up.

Christie Aschwanden:

But now, and this is part of the impetus for the book, what I notice is that recovery has become a verb, something that people are doing and they’re doing it with as much gusto as they’re putting towards their training itself. And, as I was interviewing people for the book, I was really surprised, the first few times that it happened when I would talk to an athlete and they would talk about doing their recovery, because back in my day, you didn’t do recovery. Recovery was not doing.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah totally.

Christie Aschwanden:

You’re resting. But now, it’s become something … and this, on the one hand, I think it’s absolutely wonderful that people are really recognizing the importance of recovery and that this has become a bigger part of the culture, where recovery is something, that’s considered a legitimate part of the training process. And that’s important, because that is absolutely true.

Christie Aschwanden:

But it has also become this thing that can become, in some instance, its own set of stress and its own source of stress, so that instead of doing like we did in my day and sleeping more, taking a nap, maybe curling up with a book like mine, people are doing all of these things, going to places, using devices, but doing things where they’re still moving around and there’s this feeling that you need to be accomplishing something. And, I think that that can be really counter productive.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah, no, I completely agree, and you’re leading into where I want to go with that is, where does that come from? In your opinion, what has led to this point where these athletes have this anxiety or fear that they’re not doing enough in their recovery?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, I think we’re living in the age of FOMO, where everyone’s always reporting it every time, what they’re doing and so part of it is this feeling like everyone’s doing this stuff and so therefore I need to also. But, I also think that there’s a cultural element to it. We’re living in this time where people have this sense that we have to always be optimizing everything, and there’s this idea that there’s optimized version of yourself. It’s just one or two weird tricks away and if you can just find the right weird tricks everything will be perfect and your life will be awesome.

Christie Aschwanden:

That’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t really pan out. One thing that’s really interesting that I concluded and came to understand after researching this book, and this is after, as I just said, I read probably close to 1000 research articles, journal articles, interviewed more than 250 sources, scientists, coaches, professional athletes, and what I realized after all of that, is that our bodies are highly adaptable.

Christie Aschwanden:

This idea that everything has to be absolutely perfect for you to have your peak performance, it doesn’t really pan out. Our bodies are really capable of dealing with sub optimal conditions. I think we’ve all heard the stories … I remember when I was bike racing, one of my teammates had her bike stolen, and all of sudden she didn’t have a bike.

Christie Aschwanden:

So, she borrowed this really crappy, it was a really not a great bike, and in fact, it had not enough gears and whatnot, and she ended up winning a race on that bike. And, it wasn’t because, the bike didn’t make her do it, but it goes to show that it’s not the bike, it’s all of this other stuff, and you don’t have to have absolutely everything absolutely optimized to have a good day, and that sometimes this idea that you have to have exactly the right thing and done this particular bath and wearing the right compression garments, whatever this is, it can actually come back to bite you because that stuff’s not going to happen perfectly all the time. And so, then this introduces this anxiety, oh I’m not prepared because I haven’t done all of this.

Christie Aschwanden:

But, another place that I think this idea really comes from is marketing. That’s the biggest thing. The conclusion that I came to is that so much of what we think about or what we hear about recovery these days is really just marketing. It’s not science. It’s marketing gussied up as science. I’ve heard it called science-washing. I really like that term where it’s taking a crappy thing and putting a veneer of science on it to make it seem more powerful or logical or effective.

Christie Aschwanden:

But, we have this idea that you have to have all of these perfect things, because if we have these products and these companies who are putting money into the sports, and they’re sponsoring these athletes, and now that we have social media, now all of a sudden, you’re following your favorite athletes and you see them using these products and they’re putting pictures on Instagram or they’re tweeting, or whatever it is that they’re doing, but they’re showing, oh, I’m using this stuff and you think it’s really essential.

Christie Aschwanden:

Well, the reason they’re using these things is that they’re getting them from the sponsors who are funding the sport and so it’s a self-perpetuating thing. So, it doesn’t mean, just the fact that all these professionals are using it, doesn’t mean that it’s essential, or that it even has anything to do with their success. It means that those companies are paying to play.

Adam Pulford:

That’s it. Yeah. Capitalism alive and well.

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, it really is. It really is. Yeah, in fact this goes … I have a whole chapter in the book about supplements and I can summarize that in two words, or three words, don’t take them. But, I have, there are multiple instances of professional athletes testing positive on doping tests because they ingested some substance through a supplement that they took.

Christie Aschwanden:

In one case, this famous swimmer, actually ingested it through a supplement that she was given by her sponsor. So, the idea that you could tell what’s in these things or that oh, certain companies are better than others, most of those raw materials are coming from the same place and there are real problems there.

Christie Aschwanden:

I go into it in much more detail in the book, but you really have to be careful. You don’t know what you’re getting and there’s just no good reason to be taking supplements in the first place.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah, well when I heard you speak at the Training Peak’s Endurance Coaching Summit, I was like, “We need to have Christie on this podcast,” because you were able to cut through the BS and get to the essentials. And, that’s what I want to do right now. So, I’d say, let’s dive into some recovery modalities or techniques that you … we’ll touch a few that are in the book, and there’s tons more in the book, so if this striking people’s interest that are listening to this, get the book.

Adam Pulford:

But, all right. So, let’s just go right to it. Ice baths, are they good?

Christie Aschwanden:

So, as you know, I have a whole chapter on icing and it’s called the cold war. It’s about icing and cryotherapy which we can lump together. No so, there are not a lot of things where I will say, “Do not do it,” but cold and icing. Ice baths and cryotherapy that I will say that.

Christie Aschwanden:

The idea here is that it’s supposed to help with recovery and flush out lactic acid and all this other stuff, but it turns out that icing and cryotherapy maybe not cryotherapy specifically, but cold therapy seems to actually be detrimental to recovery, which really surprised me. That’s not what I was expecting at all.

Christie Aschwanden:

I actually went into it believing that icing was a great thing. I hate doing it, but I really believed in the power of it because everyone does it. I’ve been doing it. It hurts, so you feel like, oh, it much really be working. But the evidence that we have now suggests that it actually slows the healing process. It slows adaptation, so if you’re doing hard training in hopes of getting fitter, faster, stronger, you may actually be blunting those gains.

Christie Aschwanden:

So, I would say it’s something to avoid. The exception would be, it is a very good way of numbing something. So, if you’ve twisted your ankle and it’s hurting like hell and you can’t stand it, icing will make it feel better for a little while, but it’s not something that’s going to help the healing process.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah. And, that’s a huge thing that has evolved very recently, and I think in your book you talked about the founder of the RICE principle actually going back and saying, “Hey look, I think I got it wrong in terms of the icing component.”

Adam Pulford:

And, I’ve fallen victim too as a coach, being like, “Oh yeah, ice the legs down. Sit in a cold river after your bike race.” And sure, I think you touched on the points. It numbs. It has this endorphin release and it has these sensations which, when there are sensations, we want to believe that there is good things happening.

Christie Aschwanden:

That’s right. That’s right. And, I’ll say that with icing, so there is a situation where I think it can be helpful, and that is you’re getting off of a hard bike race on a hot day, when your body temperature’s really elevated, so there it can be helpful just for reducing your core temperature and helping you cool off.

Christie Aschwanden:

But, the reason to do that is to cool off and to feel good. You don’t need to stay in for 30 minutes or whatever. It’s really about cooling off. It’s not about aiding recovery.

Adam Pulford:

Thank you for bringing that up, because I was going to actually ask you, because that is something that I do around here. Again, I’ve been living in DC now for a few years. It gets up to 105 degrees.

Christie Aschwanden:

Ouch. It’s so humid there too. I’ve been there.

Adam Pulford:

It’s crazy.

Christie Aschwanden:

I try to avoid going there in the summer these days, but yeah, it’s hot.

Adam Pulford:

It should be avoided. But, if you do make it here and ride your bike like I do, you’ll want to try to cool down as quickly as possible. And so, what I have done and what I do recommend to my athletes is, taking a cold shower or a cool bath, but not an ice bath. Now, I guess correct me if I’m wrong there, should it be icy cold, or should it just be cool cold?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, the purpose here is really to cool you off, so if that’s the temperature that will do that, and I don’t see that icy, icy cold is probably not really that superior to just a cold shower, cool water, jumping in the river, whatever it is. But I think this is a good opportunity here to get to another, what I think is a really important point, and that is, we tend to think of these things in absolutes, like something really works or it doesn’t work.

Christie Aschwanden:

But so often, it’s very contextual and it’s situation specific. So in general, icing isn’t something you should be doing in hopes of speeding recovery. You don’t need to do those ice baths like with used to do in stage races. That’s not actually helpful. On the other hand, there are some situations where it can be helpful, and so, you have to be careful that you don’t over generalize any particular finding.

Christie Aschwanden:

And, this is particularly, I think an issue with a lot of the sports science studies that come out. What ends up happening is, someone does a very small study, and it’s very common for these studies to have on the order of 10 participants and they find something oftentimes because they’ve fished around in the data until they can find a positive result. That’s a whole another topic.

Christie Aschwanden:

We can get to it another day. But, they find something that’s interesting, and then all of a sudden, this becomes the thing to do. Well, what has the study shown? It’s shown that in those 10 athletes, on that day, in that lab, under those conditions, this thing happened. But, does that mean that that will be generalizable to your situation, which could be different in 20 different ways?

Christie Aschwanden:

And, I’m not saying here that we should throw all science and all studies and we shouldn’t believe them, but only that we need to have a high threshold here and remember that science is really a process of uncertainty reduction. It’s not something, you don’t do a study and say, “Aha. Now we understand it and we know all there is to know.”

Christie Aschwanden:

And what happens so often is, you have these companies and these purveyors of products and services who, it’s very easy if you’re looking for a particular answer, to design and carry out a study that will give you something that will be able to back that up. And so, you really have to look at these studies and these things and say, “Okay, what are they measuring? Is it really measuring something meaningful?”

Christie Aschwanden:

So, they’re claiming that this thing works, but what do they mean by working and what evidence do they have for this, because so often, when you take a closer look at what’s been done, you realize that these things are being grossly oversold based on pretty flimsy evidence.

Adam Pulford:

I love that. That is beautifully said and beautifully put, and I think that if our audience can just let that soak in or even rewind back 30 to 60 seconds and listen to that again, let that soak in.

Christie Aschwanden:

I begin the book with a study that I did about beer and running.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah, the beer study.

Christie Aschwanden:

Trying to answer this burning question of, is beer the perfect recovery drink. But, the reason I chose to begin the book with this study, is that it really shows, I hope that it walks people through this process and why science is really awesome. It’s the best way that we have to understand the world, but it also is a lot more difficult than I think most people understand and I’m really hopeful that that chapter, if people who read it will walk away with a better understanding of what studies can and can’t do. And, I really wanted people to be able to walk away from this book with the tools they need and the background understand they need to be able to assess studies, and to be able to assess claims.

Christie Aschwanden:

So many of these recovery modalities, and this is true for training as well, are so often sold with … this goes back to what I was saying earlier that marketing masquerading as science, and I hope that by reading the book, people will come away with the skills and this knowledge to be able to assess this stuff and say, “Okay, should I believe this claim or shouldn’t I,” or “what red flags are popping up for me here.”

Adam Pulford:

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Well, since we talked about the cold, let’s talk about the heat now. In there, you talked about infrared sauna and a few other things, so good or bad, or can we say one or the other?

Christie Aschwanden:

So, this is something that goes in between, and one of the big takeaways that I come to in the book is that at it’s most basic level, recovery is rest. It’s rejuvenation. It’s relaxation. I think the relaxation part really gets lost a lot because so many of these modalities and things now are all about doing things, you have to rush off to do the next part of your recovery process. This is the recovery as a verb.

Christie Aschwanden:

But really, relaxation is a huge part of it. It’s allowing your body to unwind and to be relieved of stress. You want to be able to reduce to the extent possible the stress in your life, the stress on your body, because to your body stress is stress, whether it’s coming from your workout or something else.

Christie Aschwanden:

So this relaxation is a really important part. So anything that helps you relax, that’s actually doing something beneficial, and so you can hear all of these claims, so infrared saunas are a great example of this. Infrared saunas are saunas that, they basically feel a little bit cooler than a regular sauna, so if you like that, that’s fine, but they’re really sold with this idea that infrared heat is somehow something magical or different and yeah, there’s a little bit of truth to this, if you remember back to your high school physics class, infrared is a particular wavelength of, why we also feel this on our bodies as heat, on the infrared spectrum.

Christie Aschwanden:

And so yeah, it’s a little bit different than other kinds of wavelengths, but at the end of the day it’s basically heat, and so there’s not a lot of big differences. And so, if you like an infrared sauna and it helps you relax, that’s great. If you don’t like it or you find saunas unpleasant, then it’s not something to just for its own sake.

Christie Aschwanden:

There are things floating around the internet about how infrared saunas can do all sorts of magical things and reduce inflammation and markers, all these things that when you look at evidence that they cite, it’s very, very flimsy. I looked pretty deep into the evidence when I was working on the book and could find almost nothing that actually was in the correct context to be applicable to athletes like this. And so, I know people that love infrared saunas and that’s great, but I don’t think it’s something … yeah, it’s something to do because it helps you relax. It’s not something you do because you think that there’s something particularly special about infrared versus some other kind of heat.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah. Well said. Well, what about some of these other gadgets like pneumatic compression boots or sleeves?

Christie Aschwanden:

Oh yeah, the squeezy pants. Well, can I just say I love to squeezy pants. If someone gave me a pair, I would use them, but I’m not going to spend-

Adam Pulford:

I’m a big fan of squeezy pants because of the squeeziness of them, let’s just say.

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah.

Adam Pulford:

And, it makes you relax like you said, but what’s the science say about getting squeezed in your legs?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah so, these things actually came out of … it began, the squeezy pants began as actually medical products for people with say, diabetes and things. People were having trouble with circulation, and so the idea was to prevent blood from pooling in your legs and to aid circulation. And, that does work.

Christie Aschwanden:

But, the thing is, if you’re an athlete, circulation is not your problem, and it’s going to be hard to increase circulation above what it already is. You can maybe increase it a little bit, but if you’re really trying to increase circulation, the thing to do is a warm down or some light exercise. That’s the best way to increase your blood flow and increase circulation.

Christie Aschwanden:

So, there’s really nothing that special that’s happening here in terms of … there are some claims that are made about flushing lactic acid or facilitating blood flow so the blood flow thing is true, but again, it’s something that’s not going to be your limiting step. So, whether that actually helps you is pretty debatable.

Christie Aschwanden:

The lactic acid thing, there are so many products for recovery that claim to do things with lactic acid. And, I’ll just say here there was a time when we thought that lactic acid was what made you sore. Back when I was in high school, my coach used to say, “Oh, you’ve got to rub out your legs or you could do warm down,” things like this because you got to get rid of the lactic acid.

Christie Aschwanden:

Well, it turns out that lactic acid is associated with hard exercise, because you do produce it. It is something that’s produced in those situations, but it’s not the thing that’s making you sore, and furthermore, it’s something that’s actually cleared very rapidly from your muscles. So, by the time you’re doing one of these things, that lactic acid is probably gone anyway.

Christie Aschwanden:

So, that’s not really holding it. Okay, so then are the squeezy pants effective? Well, I would argue that they are but they’re not effective because of something special they’re doing with your blood. They’re effective because they’re making you sit down with your legs up for 30 minutes or 40 minutes to relax and it feels really nice.

Christie Aschwanden:

And, this goes back to the idea that if it helps you relax, that in itself, that’s a bonafide reason. You don’t need some pseudo scientific reason slapped on top of it. That in and of itself is enough.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah. I’m glad you said that. The one thing we add to our training camps or race experiences or things like this, is massage or pneumatic compression legs and I don’t really oversell it. I just say, “Hey, if you can get it without adding stress, go and do it.” And, what I love asking athletes after that is, “How do you feel?” “Oh, I’m so relaxed. Oh, it feels so good.” And it’s, perfect. That’s the point.

Adam Pulford:

And then sometimes I ask, “Do you think you would’ve done that had you not scheduled that session or been [crosstalk 00:24:12]?” And, they’re like, “No, probably not,” because everybody’s on their phones trying to catch up with work in between and what I try to use these tools for now is to help bring awareness to the habits of the athletes, to take time after the race, after the hard session, 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 30, whatever you can, and just chill out. Maybe legs up in the boots or on the table, and just get it done. But, that being said, massage, you talked about in your book anything else there for us to do?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, and I think massage is, look the pneumatic compression booths are really a type of massage. It’s really the same thing. Yeah, massage feels really good. This is one of the things, I think, if there’s one thing that athletes like best for recovery, it’s probably massage and there’s a reason.

Christie Aschwanden:

It’s very relaxing, but I think there are some other benefits that come from massage. When you look at the science, there’s not a lot there to show that there’s something really special going on, on a molecular level with your blood or things like that, but what it is doing is helping you relax and I think there’s this less tangible thing, which is, it’s helping you get in tune with your body too.

Christie Aschwanden:

I think massage is really good for helping athletes become attuned to how they’re feeling in every body part. I think we’ve all had that experience where the massage therapist starts railing on some muscle that you didn’t realize, oh my God, that’s really sore, and you hadn’t realized it, or all of a sudden you realize, wow, my right calf is really sore. My left on is less so. I wonder what’s going on with that.

Christie Aschwanden:

So, I think it’s a really good opportunity to check in on how you’re really feeling, what’s going on in your body and that’s a harder thing to measure and to quantify, but that doesn’t mean that it’s less important.

Adam Pulford:

Agreed. Well, I’ll squeeze this one in for the last recovery modality, but how about, is muscle fascia tools like scrapers, foam rollers, vibrational guns, this kind of stuff. What’s your takeaway on that?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, so the science on this is pretty new. I think that we don’t have really solid answers yet. Icing, there’s been a lot of studies on this now and I think we’re congealing around this consensus that it’s not helpful. With the fascia stuff, there’s a lot of ideas about how this works. There’s some interesting findings.

Christie Aschwanden:

So, one of the things that I think is most interesting is there have been a couple of studies now where they will do foam rolling on one leg but not the other and yet the benefits seem to accrue to both of them. So, that suggests that yeah, contrary to the idea that you’re smoothing out the fascia, there’s all sorts of mechanical explanations that are given for this.

Christie Aschwanden:

It seems to be more of under a logical thing, maybe you’re resetting pain receptors or something. This is all hypothetical. I don’t think that it’s really proven yet. There’s some people who totally swear by this stuff. I don’t think that we have really solid evidence yet to say how it works, if it works. Yeah, I also have in the book, a whole chapter on placebos and I think that this stuff is really great placebo stuff. It has the potential.

Christie Aschwanden:

And, just because something’s explained in the placebo, the response doesn’t mean that there aren’t legitimate benefits too, and I would actually argue and I do in the book that the placebo response is something that we should harness for good if we can. But, we have evidence now that placebos that are painful are more effective than ones that are inert.

Christie Aschwanden:

So, a placebo shot works a lot better then a placebo pill, and I think that foam rollers fall under that category. It’s painful and hurting and people think, “Oh, this is really digging in there. It hurts, so it must really be doing something.” Then, you’re creating this pain, and when you stop, it goes away, so that could in and of itself make you feel better, right?

Adam Pulford:

Yeah, I know. That’s it. But, I’d say to summarize the recovery modalities, keeping it simple, and getting your rest, getting your sleep and doing less is essentially what you’re saying here.

Christie Aschwanden:

Absolutely. I think it really comes down to three main factors. One is, prioritize sleep. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. There’s just no skimping on that. If you’re not sleeping well or enough, nothing else that you’re going to do is going to matter. Reducing the stress in your life is really important.

Christie Aschwanden:

Again, it’s not just the stress of the training, but any other kind of stress, personal stress, psychological, life stress. If you are having a really, really hard week at work, working long hours, that is not … you may not have gotten a workout in that day, but you’re not resting, and I think you need to really understand that and I think it’s very helpful to think of stress in terms of a budget.

Christie Aschwanden:

You have a budget of how much stress your body can take and how much stress your body can recover from and so how you spend that is not always … sometimes we have expense, stress expenses that are put on us that we would not have chosen. That’s the stressful week at work or problems at home, whatever it is, but you have to recognize that you only have so much in the bank, and so you can’t overspend.

Christie Aschwanden:

If you do, you will become over trained, and I think that a lot of people are not fully aware of how these other kinds of stresses can contribute to over training syndrome. This is something that can happen. People think, “Oh, you have to be a professional athlete to be over trained, or someone who’s training hundreds and hundreds of miles or huge numbers of hours.”

Christie Aschwanden:

But, it’s possible to have symptoms of over training and become over trained if you are under recovering. And in fact, the latest thinking on this is actually that it’s not so much over training as it is under recovering, and so you’re basically giving your body more stress than it can handle and at some point it just breaks.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah. That’s it. One thing that I talk with with my athletes is, we talk about training stress. Even in non TrainingPeaks, there’s a training stress score and you get certain points as you accumulate time, add intensity, and it makes you tired, and then you rest and it gets better.

Adam Pulford:

But, I also talk about life stress, or I call it LSS. And I just say it all goes in the same bucket.

Christie Aschwanden:

It does.

Adam Pulford:

And when that thing’s overflowing, you got to take something away, and sometimes that’s training.

Christie Aschwanden:

Absolutely.

Adam Pulford:

It’s a very abstract way of looking at it, but some of the data we have now, athletes conceptualize that a little bit better. And, to transition into that, you talk about data and metrics in your book, and we live in a time period where we can measure … we can measure [crosstalk 00:31:08]

Christie Aschwanden:

… the numbers down, right?

Adam Pulford:

Yeah, heart rate, heart rate variability, deep sleep, light sleep, power, pace, electrolyte composition, muscle glycogen and all these kind of things, and then we love to put out algorithmic computations that give us recovery scores or something to tell us how to train. You went through all the data. You sifted through. What did you find?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, well, I have to preface this by saying that I am actually, I am a data journalist. Up until this past year, I was working at 538, a very well known data journalism site. So, I’m all about the numbers. So, I want to make that clear, because yeah, I was a little bit surprised to come to the conclusion that numbers are not where it’s at for this and what I mean by that is, there are a lot of people and there are all sorts of companies that are making a lot of oversold claims about data and recovery scores and things like this.

Christie Aschwanden:

But when you really look at this, and scientists, of course, are looking at this and they’ve done a lot of research on it and there’s a really interesting paper that I talk about in the book where they actually … It was a meta analysis, so they compared all these different types of factors that people were looking at, and in particular, looking at different measures of training rather than stress, to see what’s the best measure of recovery and whatnot.

Christie Aschwanden:

And, it turns out, that the very best measure is actually mood. How are you feeling? Are you grumpy? Are you testy? And look, we’ve all experienced this. You’re at training camp. You’re training really hard. Some people get anxious. Some people get depressed. Some people get moody. Whatever it is, but it manifests in these psychological ways and these mood ways.

Christie Aschwanden:

And oftentimes, an athlete who is physiologically becoming over trained will actually feel like they don’t feel like training and they’re not in the mood, and that’s a sign, but what that athlete will often do is double down and say, “What’s wrong with me? I must need to train harder. Why am I feeling lazy?” That’s actually your body saying that you need a rest and you should listen to that.

Christie Aschwanden:

And so, I think the way to think about this … we have now all of these different tools that everyone’s got their tracker, that can measure all sorts of things, and these things go in fads. There’s heart rate. There’s heart rate variability. There’s different scores that people, proprietary scores that different devices have.

Christie Aschwanden:

But, you can think of your brain as this master computer and what it’s doing is taking in all of the physiological inputs that it has, how sore your muscles are, how fatigued you are, how your sleep is, and all this. And, it’s putting that together in this feeling. So, that feeling that you have, your mood, and just this non quantitative feeling of well being, is actually your brain putting that all together. And so, we may be dismissive of it and say, “Well, it’s not a number that you can measure on a watch,” and yet it’s far more sophisticated than that because it’s taking in all of those things and it’s considering it. And, I think that’s the way to think about it.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah. I completely agree. One of the first things I ask my athletes when I get them on the phone, “How are you feeling today? How are the legs feeling today,” that type of thing. RPE and mood states on TrainingPeaks, a lot of those, but I’ll say this too Christie, like you, I work with data and analytics daily to measure how things are going with my athletes.

Adam Pulford:

So, I’m not going away from data and analytics. I track and monitor performance markers. We can talk about what performance means in a separate conversation, but let’s just say performance that we can hang our hat on in addition to these mood markers and some of these other things.

Adam Pulford:

It’s real noisy. I don’t necessarily say to wear the device or all these things. I think it’ll be interesting to see where we go. So, I … go ahead.

Christie Aschwanden:

I don’t think that these measures are unhelpful or they’re useless, but I think that the danger here, and it’s fine to look at them and pay attention to, but I think the most important thing here and the takeaway is that athletes need to figure out what they need to pay attention to and make sure that they’re paying attention to the right things.

Christie Aschwanden:

So for instance, your feeling and your mood and your sense of wellbeing is more important. That should trump what your heart rate variability is saying, for instance. And, the problem I think, and the issue is when people become so fixated on their data that they’ve lost that sense of how they’re actually feeling.

Christie Aschwanden:

And, it could be trickier than it sounds because it’s not just how are you feeling. You have to really think for a second, okay, how am I feeling and what does that mean. So, I think I’m feeling good, but does that mean my muscles aren’t sore? Does it mean I’m feeling energetic? And, really considering all of these things that go into that sense, and I think that this takes practice frankly and that it’s not something that, although it’s a natural thing that we have, your natural mood or how you’re feeling, it takes some time to figure out for you, what are the signs of over training? What are the signs that I’m not fully recovered? Because these are very individual, and again, they can be context specific too.

Christie Aschwanden:

It may be that if your sleep is not going well and you’re not getting enough rest that you’ll have certain symptoms and you’ll notice certain things, whereas if you are just under recovered from your last workout, or your muscles just are really still feeling sore, that may feel a different way.

Christie Aschwanden:

But, being able to understand and learn to read those signs, that will help you also understand what you need to do about it. So, I know, oh I’m feeling a little bit stale today, and I know because of the qualitative aspects of this feeling, but that’s because I haven’t been sleeping well.

Christie Aschwanden:

And I also know that because I’m actually paying attention to how I’m sleeping, because that’s the first step. If I know that I’m feeling stale, but that’s because I trained really hard the last two days and it’s not unexpected, and I know that that’s okay and so I’ll decide what I want to do then. Does that mean I need an easy day or does it mean that I’ve accepted, okay, this is okay that I’m feeling this way and there’s nothing wrong.

Christie Aschwanden:

It’s just this is the state right now. And, I think that it’s those sorts of sensory things that athletes really needed to pay attention to and take time to really learn to read for themselves.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah, again, it comes back to awareness. Helping to bring awareness to athletes is something that the data and the metrics are doing right now. I think that it’ll only get better in the future, but that’s my point too is, there’s so much out there, so don’t get tripped up in all the noise of all the gadgets. That’s again, what you’re alluding to in your book.

Christie Aschwanden:

But I think the danger here to is, that you start to … you shouldn’t be asking your sports watch how am I feeling.

Adam Pulford:

For sure.

Christie Aschwanden:

You know you feel like … it’s the opposite of how you should be. It’s like, here’s how I’m feeling and what are my numbers? How can they help me contribute or what are they telling me about it? The danger is when you’re doing it the opposite way and I have this really funny story. It was told to me.

Christie Aschwanden:

A friend of mine is in college, track coach, and he was doing mile repeats with his team one day, and he kept noticing that some of the kids were running past the finish line a little bit. They weren’t stopping at the finish line. And on a repeat, you’re pretty much ready to stop at the finish line. And he was like, “Guys, what the hell are you doing?” Well, it turned out that the GPS, they had to go just a little bit further for the GPS watch the register the full mile, so they were doing that. I think he made them all take their watches off at that point.

Christie Aschwanden:

But, the point here is that … and I think obviously, they weren’t not trusting that they were actually running a mile, but they wanted to get that data into their devices and all of that, and it’s like, no, no, you should not be … it’s not the computer stuff that’s going to tell you how you’re feeling or how things are going, and you need to let go of having to control that so much or be looking at that. You need to develop your own sense of that, and it’s just really a danger when you’re offloading that to some other device and you’re letting the device tell you how far you ran, or whether you felt good, or whether this was a hard week or an easy week.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s a wonderful point. That’s a wonderful point. And, I think to that end, and as long as we’re talking about what does the science say, what does the data say, I’m going to change directions just slightly, and then we’re going [crosstalk 00:40:20] on, because we are running a little short on time, but I want to make sure we squeeze it all in.

Adam Pulford:

You talk about recovery meals and a recovery window of time, and I grew up in that era where 30 to 45 minutes after a hard workout, you got to get food in. Where are we at right now on the science on that?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, that’s a really great question, and in fact, it just published today. I have a new fitness column at Elemental, which is this science vertical at Medium.com, but I just published a story today on there about carbo loading, which when I was in high school, that was a huge thing.

Christie Aschwanden:

We’d all do carbo loading and now if people don’t do that and there are good reasons for it and … we’re not doing carbo loading and yet carbs are still really important but things have evolved a little bit. And so, the window is another thing that’s really evolved.

Christie Aschwanden:

So there was some early research that seemed to suggest that after you exercised hard, if you were to get in and particularly carbohydrates, although later on it looked like protein is really important too, that there was 30, sometimes it was said 40 minutes, but the short window of time after the workout in which your muscles were over eager to replenish their fuel stores they’ve used.

Christie Aschwanden:

And so, if you could get that nutrition in right away, you can make sure to really … there would be this super compensation effect, so you would be sure that your glycogen stores were really well packed and you’d be ready and good to go for the next workout. Well, it turns out they did more research and it turned out that this was another thing where it was context dependent and yeah, it looked like this time was really important.

Christie Aschwanden:

That was just a relic of the way they were doing the studies and it turned out that it wasn’t the timing that was so important, it was the actual nutrition itself. So, it was not that you needed that protein in within 30 minutes of the workout, so that you could repair your muscles, it was that you needed that protein, and in fact, now we think that it’s better to be getting protein throughout the day instead of in one huge dose.

Christie Aschwanden:

You still see people that are doing these huge protein shakes, particularly after strength workouts, but just the evidence isn’t there for that anymore. So, you do need that protein, but taking it in, in one giant meal right after exercise is not necessary and it’s probably not even ideal. It’s probably better to be getting it in throughout the day.

Christie Aschwanden:

The exception would be if you are doing something where you’re doing one workout and then you’re going to have to perform again in short order, well yeah, you want to refuel for that second workout. But, if you’re doing a workout and not going to train again until the next day, yeah, you could wait till dinner, whatever.

Christie Aschwanden:

Now, on the other hand, this is … I think this goes back to my earlier point of everyone wants it to be black and white and you do this and you don’t do this. If you’ve finished your workout and you’re hungry, that’s your body saying it needs food.

Adam Pulford:

Totally.

Christie Aschwanden:

You have this idea that it has to be one special thing and in that instance too, if you are hungry for a salty snack, that’s probably telling you, you need some salt, so go ahead and have that pretzel or whatever. It’s okay to obey your body’s calls for nutrition.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah, and as I sit here and I listen to what we’re talking about and after reading the book, I think more than anything, I think it allows the athlete to take some worry off, to take some anxiety off of everything that they’re doing, especially their recovery, but everything that they’re doing.

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, probably the number one type of comment that I get from readers, I’ve been getting lots of letters from readers and tweets and things like this, direct messages, I would say the number one response that I get is thank you so much, I feel so relieved. You’ve given me permission.

Christie Aschwanden:

Basically my book gives them permission to stop worrying about all the stuff that doesn’t matter. I think a lot of the focus of the book is really helping people identify the things that do matter so they can stop wasting time, energy and money on the stuff that doesn’t. And frankly, there’s a hell of a lot more stuff that doesn’t matter than what does.

Christie Aschwanden:

And, I like to tell people, “This is your advantage over the competition.” People are always saying they want to know the latest thing that everyone else is doing, but in a way, letting go of this idea that there’s always going to be some new thing that’s better than everything else, most of that stuff never pans out. They do the initial study or there’s some sort of hint that something’s great, but it’s never quite as great as it’s initially advertised, and so let everyone else chase those mirages.

Christie Aschwanden:

You focus on the stuff that really matters. If you can master the fundamentals, just doing that is actually a lot harder than I think most people recognize, but that’s a much better use of your time, energy and money.

Christie Aschwanden:

And so, let your competitors chase that other stuff. They could waste all their energy on it while you’re doing the stuff that’s much more important.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah, well so, what would you say to the person who’s reading the latest article or their training partner or their coach is telling them, “Hey this is the new recovery thing?” What would you tell them about that next recovery thing?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, look I’m not opposed to trying new things, and I’m not going to say never believe the new thing. I would take some time, and there again, this is where I think my book can help. I think by the time you’re done reading it, you’ll have some of these tools to assess these scientific claims, but take a close look what is it that’s being claimed? What is the evidence for it, and there’s also almost just the BS tasks. Doe this even make sense, because so often … Tom Brady’s magic infrared pajamas are a great example of this. It’s infrared technology and there’s this ceramic blah, blah, blah inside the fabric.

Christie Aschwanden:

I don’t think you need an advanced degree in physics to be able to listen to this and know that it’s bogus. And so, if something sounds to be good to be true, it probably is.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah. Well, that’s a great way to sum it all up and so I guess as we move into the final portion of this podcast and the takeaways really, we’ll sum up some key points, but first I want to ask you three questions that our audience, I think can apply right away to their training. So, the first one is, what is your go to post hard workout recovery food?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah. I love yogurt actually, is one of my favorite, and bananas are probably the second.

Adam Pulford:

You actually mentioned those in your book. It’s on brand. Okay. Question number two, so we know sleep is important. We talked about it on the podcast today, but what do you recommend for athletes who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night.

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, I think one of my best tricks is get the clock radio out of your room. Take away the clock. Stop looking at the clock. And, this sounds simple, and I had a friend who was suffering from terrible insomnia and I told her to do this and she was really resistant and then finally she did it and she said, “Wow, that really works.”

Christie Aschwanden:

So much of this [crosstalk 00:47:37], yeah but also, you get into this cycle where you’re a wake and you’re worried about it and then that anxiety keeps you up, so give yourself permission to just lie there and realize that just lying there and being quiet and resting is helpful too.

Christie Aschwanden:

I’ll give you … I know you only asked for one, but there’s a second trick that I’ve used myself on occasion and I think it really works, and that is pick a word, doesn’t matter what it is. Let’s say it’s apple. So then, you start with A and you think of as many words as you can that start with A, and then you go to the next letter and the two Ps probably isn’t helpful, but you get the idea. But, the real purpose here is that it’s turning off that churning brand because you’re thinking of something else instead of whatever it is, anxiety that’s keeping you up.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah. That’s a good one. That’s a good one. Okay. Question number three. If you’re going to invest time or money on something for recovery, what do you suggest to our listeners?

Christie Aschwanden:

So, I don’t think you need to invest money, but I think that the very best thing that you can do to enhance your recovery is to really make a commitment to prioritizing sleep. I know this sounds so basic and people are like, “Yeah, yeah, sleep.” The thing is, no one does this. And, it’s actually a lot harder I think than people realize to really prioritize sleep, because the way to get sleep is to make it a priority, to make it something that you don’t compromise on and I think many of us now live in a situation or lifestyle where we don’t have a choice of when we’re getting up.

Christie Aschwanden:

I like to sleep in and lots of times I can’t. I’m lucky enough that I work from home and I can do that. This morning I slept until 8:00 a.m. I know a lot of people can’t do that, but if you have to get up at a certain time, that really limits you. So, that means you have to go to bed at a certain time if you’re going to get your eight hours of sleep.

Christie Aschwanden:

And so, it can be really hard though when 10:00 rolls around and you’re watching Netflix or you decide, “Well, I’m just going to check email one more time.” I guess I would say never check email, especially right before bed.

Adam Pulford:

For me, I can’t do that. If I check email or something like that, my brain is going non stop.

Christie Aschwanden:

Well, it’s also you think it’s going to be five minutes, but it’s never five minutes, right?

Adam Pulford:

Totally.

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, so really, I think really truly making a commitment to sleep and figuring out for your lifestyle and for your circumstances, how can I get the sleep that I need and what is that going to look like? For some people, that might be a nap, if you have a lifestyle that will allow that. For other people, it’s going to bed earlier. Whatever it is, but it’s not just something that’s a given. Everyone gives it lip service, but very few people walk the talk.

Adam Pulford:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, that is solid advice Christie and if I can summarize, it is prioritize sleep first and foremost, and make sure that you are sleeping and resting properly. Two, it would be if you are tracking data and metrics and things like that, make sure that you’re also checking in with your mood and bringing awareness to your body after hard training sessions and after sleep as well.

Adam Pulford:

And then finally, don’t sweat the small stuff. You don’t have to bring such anxiety about your recovery habits or the food or the timing or anything like that. So, is there anything else that you would add to that summary?

Christie Aschwanden:

I think the final thing would just be that I think it’s really important to have a daily relaxation ritual. Have a time in your day that’s just for you, where you don’t have all these outside distractions vying for your attention and your time. It can be kicking back with your feet up and having a beer after work.

Christie Aschwanden:

It can be taking a hot bath. It doesn’t matter what it is, but it needs to be something that you’re doing on a daily basis that is time that is set aside where you don’t feel this urgency to be productive and it’s not a time where you feel like you need to be doing something, but where you’re really just relaxing, however relaxation looks for you.

Christie Aschwanden:

If you have the squeezy pants, use that. That’s fine. I wish I had them. I don’t. Oh, and read my book. It’s out in paperback this month.

Adam Pulford:

Perfect, well if we wanted to read more about what you’re writing now or follow you on the socials Christie, how can we do that?

Christie Aschwanden:

Yeah, so my book is www.goodtogobook.com. You can find ordering information there. My website is my first name, last name, dot com. On Twitter, I am Cragcrest and that is the place name of my favorite trail run out here in Colorado, so it’s crag as in craggy rocks, and crest. Yeah, and that’s a good way, I take DMs too.

Adam Pulford:

Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, I think I’m good to go, and I think our audience are as well now. So, thank you for taking the time today and then we’ll let you get back to playing outside in Colorado.

Christie Aschwanden:

Sounds great. Thanks for having me. Take care.

Adam Pulford:

All right. Thanks Christie.

Christie Aschwanden:

Bye.

 


Share This Article

Comments 4

  1. Great topic, guest, and host! At 52 I’ve been training harder than ever this winter for a big March event. I’ve been forcing myself to be in bed early to get 8 hrs every night and when I’m not feeling it I tone down the days workout or do a recovery activity. So far it has worked great and I’ve pushed my CTL 10 points higher than it’s ever been in the past. Planning on good results in March!

  2. This was the most valuable podcast I have listened to in a very long time. Thank you so much. We all put so much effort into training, scrutinizing and over thinking and way to MUCH EFFORT into recovery instead of actually chilling out and recovering!! Brilliant !!

    1. I also really enjoyed and couldn’t agree more with Christie. Coach Adam did a great job hosting too 🙂
      Chris Carmichael

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *