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Holistic workout recovery regimes often outperform touted tech, finds a writer who tried them all

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

Christie Aschwanden
Norton
2019
312 pp.
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Redolent of sweaty workout wear and foot stink, I’m bent over in a climbing gym, not climbing. A friend is showing me how to deadlift, and I’m afraid—afraid I’ll have horrible form and hurt my back, afraid I’ll lift well and suffer aches and stiffness, afraid I won’t get sore at all and thereby prove I didn’t push hard enough.

In the sports world, aches are often thought of as a good thing, a badge of effort. Whatever else you feel after a workout, muscle soreness is tangible evidence of your exertion. A casual climber, I still have a lot to learn about the ministrations of modern sports recovery regimes. After a hard session on the rock wall, I pound one forearm with the opposite fist, take an Epsom salt bath, and call it good. But after reading Christie Aschwanden’s new book, it was oddly comforting to discover that even elite athletes are often befuddled about the best ways to recuperate after an intense training session.

In Good to Go, Aschwanden samples a dizzying variety of sports recovery modalities. She sleeps in the recovery technology pajamas endorsed by Tom Brady, tries a cryotherapy session, shuts herself in a sensory deprivation tank, and squeezes into a slew of compression pants and tights.

Her casual references to punishing trail rides, lengthy training runs, and blisteringly fast ski competitions hint that she is more of an athlete than many readers are likely to be. Although her sports cred may be intimidating, her down-to-earth tone makes her feel utterly relatable. And although she could have simply narrated the pleasures and pitfalls of her sports recovery odyssey, Aschwanden turbocharges Good to Go by relentlessly delving into the science behind the most touted treatment regimes.

Many of today’s recovery modalities, she finds, are based on tiny studies that are not necessarily replicable or representative of the outcomes most athletes should expect. A dismaying number of them are funded by industry. And in many cases, recovery technologies that are allegedly science-based don’t live up to the claims made by their endorsers. After enduring an infrared sauna, for example, Aschwanden points out the lack of any large studies able to demonstrate a significant recovery advantage. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, she reminds readers, even had to order one manufacturer to stop claiming that its saunas reduced swelling or expelled toxins. There is little evidence to support these claims. Even her own carefully designed “study”—which sought to determine whether beer makes a good workout recovery drink—does more to persuade Aschwanden that conducting sports science research is hard than it does to up her six-pack consumption.

The quantification of exercise seems to promise ambitious athletes more control over their training process and more incentive to “work hard” at both training and getting over a workout. But the same drive that helps these achievers excel during competition often tempts them to chase competitive stats and training routines that may sap their will and leave their bodies wrecked, as Aschwanden finds when interviewing former triathlete Matt Dixon, whose career was cut short by overtraining. Dixon now specializes in recovery coaching, saying “I decided to make recovery more than lip service. I made it part of the program.”  Coaches such as Dixon encourage training and recovery that is more holistically tailored to an athlete’s moods and needs

Aschwanden’s persuasive science and snappy writing helped me relinquish some recovery beliefs I’d been holding for years. Fancy electrolyte-laden sports drinks, it turns out, show no clear superiority at hydrating the body over plain water, and drinking too much liquid can be more detrimental to performance than getting a little dehydrated. The benefits of “precision eating” and protein supplements are probably all in our heads. Icing and cryotherapy might actually do more harm than good. And fitness tracking apps—which focus our attention on a handful of metrics instead of the overall picture—are causing us to ignore the sophisticated training and recovery signals released by our own bodies. It may be better, Aschwanden regularly reminds readers, to learn to trust your own body and its specific needs.

It would have been helpful if Aschwanden had followed her blitz through recovery modalities with a few more pages exploring what this trust might look like. She has the chops to explain complicated research and the prose to keep even dedicated couch potatoes turning pages.

I finished this book feeling worse about many supposedly surefire methods of sports recovery but reassured about my own body’s inherent ability to recuperate and get fitter. Maybe it really is as simple as rest and reasonable choices.

About the author

The reviewer is at Peraton, Herndon, VA 20170, USA.