The strange science of sports recovery with Christie Aschwanden

Legendary journalist and athlete Christie Aschwanden discusses all things sports science, from the best recovery methods to Tom Brady’s infrared pajamas.

All that tightening, toning, yearning, burning, building, stretching, gaining, maintaining … all that is being informed by science, right? Exercise is, after all, fairly radical: pushing our physical forms past their norms, in an effort to change ourselves.

Something so important should be driven by facts.

Journalist and athlete Christie Aschwanden has made her beat interrogating the methods behind sports science — including in her book Good to Go, on the science of recovery — and it certainly needs some scrutiny.

Research is a crucial part of gaining an edge. But what research can we trust? Freethink spoke with Aschwanden about scientific methodology, supplement chicanery, and Tom Brady’s infrared pajamas.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Freethink: How did you come around to writing about the science side of sports?

Christie Aschwanden: I’ve been an athlete most of my life. I started off as a runner, was a runner in high school and college, and then in college I got hurt. I started cycling for rehab, and then I got really into cycling, so I started doing that, did that pretty seriously for a while, and then I also got into Nordic skiing. After college, I was doing Nordic skiing pretty seriously for eight years or so on a trade team (Rossignol).

I have a natural interest in sports from that angle, but then I’m trained as a scientist, and I’m a science writer by profession, and so this is really just a melding of two parts of my life.

Freethink: How has sports science impacted your personal life?

Christie: I was constantly — throughout all these different stages of my athletic career — being told things by coaches, by other athletes. I think every sport has its conventional wisdom too, which may or may not be scientifically accurate.

Freethink: What does it mean when we talk about sports science?

Christie: It’s really looking at human physiology and human performance. One of the problems here … is that so much of this research is being funded by industry. Gatorade actually has a thing called the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, which is basically funding research that is making sure that hydration is kept front and center … and so a lot of the scientific literature is very skewed by the way that it’s funded and the perverse incentives at play here.

Freethink: That was literally my next question. Does most of the funding for these kinds of studies come from private interests?

Christie: I would say a large part of it does. The NIH and there are some more neutral bodies that are funding studies on exercise science, as exercise relates to health, but most of the science that is being done on performance and recovery, specifically, is being funded or driven by commercial interests.

Freethink: What commercial interests are most involved?

Christie: There’s a lot of supplement stuff. There’s a lot of Gatorade, and Gatorade’s not the only one. It’s mostly funded by companies with something to sell you.

Freethink: What constitutes good, strong methodology for science, and why is it important?

Christie: It’s really important because the answer that you get from a study depends very heavily on the way that you ask the questions, how you design things.

The first chapter of my book is about beer and running, and so I recount the study that I did, I put together with some bona fide researchers. We did it at a university and so the question was whether having a beer after a run was going to impair recovery, because this is something that a lot of people do … so this question seems pretty straightforward, right?

But, as soon as you go down this road, you start to come up with challenges. So, what do you mean by recovery? How are you going to measure it? What does that mean? What would that look like in the study?

And, depending on what measures you take, and how you look at the question, you may come up with completely different answers. And one thing that’s been shown now to be true is that you can, if you have a preference toward a particular outcome for the study, it’s not that difficult to design the study in a way in which it helps you, and you’re tipping the scales toward getting that answer that you want.

Freethink: If your study is funded by an equipment company or a supplement manufacturer or something, they very obviously have a result that they would probably prefer, right?

Christie: Yeah, and I think so often we think of conflicts of interest as being, okay, here I am, company X, I’m handing you a boatload of cash so that you can do the study and then tell me exactly what I want, but it’s usually far more subtle than that. So much of it is just by having such a strong influence on even what gets studied, what questions get asked, how they get asked.

Freethink: What were some of the issues that you noticed were especially pervasive when it comes to sports science?

Christie: Well, the most common thing is small sample size. This is endemic in sports science. I think it’s really common for studies to have 10 or 12 people, and that’s just not enough. Those samples are too small to be a conclusive answer. You just can’t. It’s very easy to get very skewed results, and so this is a huge problem.

But the thing is, I think it’s something that’s very easy to spot. If you’re just a lay person reading about a study, one of the first things I would ask is, how many people did it involve? And if it’s under, say, 100, which they almost always are for sports science … you just cannot rely on that.

It’s evidence, but it’s very low-quality evidence.

Freethink: What skills do you think people need to be able to read this research properly?

Christie: First of all, when you’re looking at something that’s new, that’s being heralded as the new science or whatever, one study can never give you the be-all and end-all answers.

I think the first thing is, you want to look for not just one study, you want to know that there are multiple studies showing this effect and showing that this thing works.

Freethink: What do you look at when you’re looking at these studies in the course of your own writing and reporting? What are the red flags for you?

Christie: So, sample size is one red flag. Who’s funding it is another. Looking at the study design, what are they measuring? Is the thing they’re measuring something that matters to real athletes?

Freethink: When we talk about the science of “recovery” like in Good to Go, what are we talking about? It’s sort of a newer thing, I think, for recovery to be something we do now, instead of something that happens.

Christie: So what hasn’t changed is that recovery is really extremely important for athletic performance. The idea here is that you could only benefit from the training that you’re recovering from.

The reason we do athletic training is to provoke changes in adaptation — so that you’re getting fitter, faster, stronger, and all of that — and so you don’t actually get stronger in the moment at the gym when you’re lifting the weight, you get stronger later on when your body is making repairs.

So recovery is very important, but these are things that are happening in your body on their own time. What’s happened now … particularly in the last five or 10 years, is that you see these companies that are trying to capitalize on this, and they’ve really turned recovery into something that’s more than just fleeting.

Freethink: You got to participate in a lot of these recovery methods. Which one of those methods felt the best to you?

Christie: I think anything involving massage is fantastic. It’s probably one of the things that in general most athletes like the best, whether it’s traditional massage from one of these sports therapists, or now you have these pneumatic compression devices — I call them the squeezy pants — you can put them on, and they massage your muscles, and it feels really good. So that’s a really nice one. There are all these newfangled ways.

The thing that actually makes these useful is probably … they’re just giving you an opportunity to take some time out of your day and relax, and to actually spend time paying attention to how your body is feeling.

At the end of the book, I conclude that probably the best way to measure these things in terms of efficacy, is do they make you feel better and do they help you feel more relaxed? Because that’s really what recovery takes.

Freethink: So, what was the weirdest recovery method? Not necessarily the worst, but the one where you were like, what is this?

Christie: Probably Tom Brady’s pajamas.

Freethink: Yeah? I’m not surprised.

Christie: Yeah, that was just using pseudo-scientific terms. They’re just regular pajamas, but they’re being sold as having this “infrared technology,” which is basically just saying, “it’s reflecting your body heat.” Which is nice, that’s fine.

I think in a way it’s capitalizing on people’s faith in science, and the idea that, oh, this sounds really scientific, therefore it must be really powerful.

There’s all kinds of issues with that, but just because someone is famous, doesn’t mean that their ideas are scientific or even safe. I think Tom Brady is the male equivalent of Gwyneth Paltrow on this.

Freethink: It’s like dude Goop.

Christie: Yeah, right. Exactly.

Freethink: What recovery method did you feel like was most potentially dangerous?

Christie: Most potentially dangerous is probably supplements. There’s just absolutely no reason that athletes should be taking supplements. There’s not good evidence that they’re helpful. There’s ample evidence that you could be risking getting a positive drug test.

In the book, I talk about athletes who ended up getting drug bans because of a substance they inadvertently ingested from a supplement given to them by their sponsor.

You don’t need it.

Another really important thing is actually hydration. We have a situation now where people have been told so much, erroneously, that they have to replace every drop of liquid that they lose, every drop of fluid that they lose through sweat in real time. So what you have now is people who are dying in marathons from drinking too much water. That’s really scary, and that’s just a matter of taking marketing too far.

Freethink: It kind of seems like a lot of this boils down to moderation and common sense, right? Sleep-

Christie: Yes, exactly.

Freethink: Eat when you’re hungry. Eat good things. Drink when you’re thirsty. Drink water.

Christie: Yep. Exactly. It’s mom-isms, right?

Freethink: What has to change to make sports science more applicable and safer, and are people doing it?

Christie: There is a movement underway right now. There’s a group, their acronym is STORK (Society for Transparency, Openness, and Replication in Kinesiology).

They’re working very hard to try to address some of these problems. Unfortunately, there’s not one single thing that will do everything. Bigger sample sizes would be a huge thing. There are other things, such as preregistering trials. Before you go and do a study, you commit to what you’re going to do and how you’re going to analyze the data ahead of time.

This means that then if you do a study, and you don’t get the answer you like, you can’t — I mean, you can still go in and try and fish around, but then it will be obvious.

Freethink: So, after all this research, reporting, and participation, what do you suggest people do if they want to recover as well as they can?

Christie: It’s actually pretty simple. Sleep. Prioritize sleep. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Plan for it. There’s nothing else in recovery that comes even close to sleep.

Good nutrition of course is important, but there’s no one magic food.

Another thing that I think is really important and does not get enough attention is finding a way to manage stress in your life, because if you’re not managing your stress, you’re not going to be recovering optimally, because that stress puts strain on your body, and it’s going to reduce your body’s ability to recover from the exercise that you’re doing.

So the more that you can build relaxation rituals, whether it’s mediation, whether it’s just setting aside time to relax with a book or do something like that, it’s really important. We can’t eliminate stress from our life, but we can do a lot to manage it, and to prepare for it, and also to acknowledge it.

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