The central dilemma of exercise recovery is encapsulated in the results of a mischievous Australian study from a few years ago.
Athletes who soaked in a lukewarm tub spiked with “recovery oil” felt better and regained their strength more rapidly than normal in the days following a hard workout; those who shivered in an ice bath also experienced similar benefits.
The catch is that the recovery oil was plain old bath soap – a placebo chosen to demonstrate that the much-touted benefits of ice baths are all in your head. And the dilemma is that, whatever the mechanism, both the ice bath and recovery oil groups sped up their recovery compared to doing nothing. So what advice should an intellectually honest but performance-driven coach (or newspaper columnist) give to athletes?
Recovery used to be a passive state – something that happened to athletes between their workouts. These days, in contrast, it’s anything but passive. Athletes “do” their recovery, and they spend significant amounts of time, energy and money on their ice baths, compression garments, recovery shakes, cryosaunas, sleep trackers and so on. One industry analyst pegs the athletic-recovery sector at hundreds of millions of dollars a year and growing.
But, as the recovery-oil study illustrates, the science underpinning this recovery boom is slipperier than it seems. What exactly are recovery aids aiming to accomplish, and do they deliver on their promises? These are the questions that science writer Christie Aschwanden takes on in a new book, Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery – and the answers she delivers are less straightforward that either true believers or hardened cynics might expect.
There is, to be sure, plenty of debunking to be done. If you’re not convinced that Tom Brady’s recent Super Bowl victory can be attributed to the bioceramic powder in his eponymous $260 TB12 infrared recovery pyjamas, you’ll enjoy Aschwanden’s deconstruction of how the sleepwear takes your body heat and reflects it back at you as, well, heat.
As lead science writer for the data-crunching website FiveThirtyEight, Aschwanden is a natural skeptic. I met her a few years ago at a sports science conference we were both covering, and we quickly bonded over our shared impatience at the combination of bold claims and scanty evidence that are common in the field.
In that spirit, much of the book takes aim at the distortions caused by industry-funded research, celebrity endorsements, multilevel marketing and outdated physiological concepts such as “flushing the blood” after a workout.
But just when you start to take the debunking for granted, Aschwanden flies to San Francisco to try out one of the float tanks made famous – or at least notorious – by basketball star Stephen Curry. Once known as sensory-deprivation chambers, these tanks are filled with 750 litres of water and 500 kilograms of Epsom salts, allowing you to float in the dark in a state of suspended animation for an hour at a time. You can sense the mockery to come as Aschwanden prepares for the experience – but then, unexpectedly, she loves it.
The whole point of recovery is to give your body the opportunity to adapt to the stress of training. And, as one scientist tells Aschwanden, “stress is stress – it doesn’t matter if it comes from a session of intervals or from the emotional strain of a romantic breakup.” Relaxing in the float tank gives Aschwanden both a mental and a physical break, and she comes to believe that the two are both important, and more intertwined than we realize.
That epiphany extends to other recovery aids such as massage, and even the high-tech pneumatic compression boots that gymnast Simone Biles sported at the last Olympics. As with ice baths, the physiological benefits of these techniques remain murky – but they feel good, and if they help you carve out the time and mental space to relax, they may serve a valuable purpose.
Will any of these techniques really accelerate your recovery compared to, say, Netflix and chill? Maybe, for athletes in the frenetic modern world who are constantly being tempted to train more, work longer and stay logged in, that’s the wrong question.
Alex Hutchinson is the author of Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. Follow him on Twitter @sweatscience.
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