ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christie Aschwanden is an American journalist and the lead science writer at FiveThirtyEight. Her 2019 book GOOD TO GO: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery, was a New York Times bestseller.
// The Anabolic Window Myth, Fluid Intake, and Workout Recovery Fact and Fiction
Over the past few years, recovery has progressed from pro sports to the mainstream and become a multi-billion-dollar industry. But from superfood supplements to infrared saunas to customizable sports drinks, it’s hard to cut through all the buzz and find what really works (and what’s just a waste of time, money, and effort). In this revealing Q+A, science writer Christie Aschwanden – who was introduced to the TrainHeroic team by her good friend, Range author David Epstein – shares some insights from her bestselling book Good to Go that can help you recover better and live a healthier life.
Drink to thirst vs. prescribed fluid intake is always a hot topic. What’s your take?
I’m a big proponent of drinking to thirst because this is what most of the evidence points to, and we’ve seen too many examples of how prescribed intake can be dangerous. Sometimes you just need a sip, or you may keep drinking until you feel refreshed. But this doesn’t mean that athletes can get away with not planning – you can’t drink to thirst if you don’t have fluids available when you need them. There are also situations – like a soccer player during a game – in which you can’t take a drink. So you need to plan ahead. Hydration is an example of how we don’t give our bodies enough credit. They’re highly sophisticated and finely tuned monitoring machines. We’re able to deal with some fluid loss and replenish it later, rather than the prevailing notion that we have to immediately replace every drop lost.
Where do you stand on the debate between sports drinks and water?
It all depends on the circumstances. If you’ve just run a marathon or finished a really hard training session, you’re going to need to replenish to a greater degree, and you might need to top up your glycogen level. But in other cases where your session or competition isn’t as long or intense, water might well be all you need. There used to be this idea that there’s a recovery window, and that if you don’t eat and drink during it, your recovery was going to be compromised. But this was mostly a function of the way earlier studies were designed. More recent research has largely debunked this.
Does that extend to the “You need to get 20 grams of protein within 20 minutes of your workout, or 30 grams within 30 minutes” adage?
Yes. That’s known as the anabolic window. Again, the timing and amount of protein intake should depend on your goals, but the latest science has largely overturned the need to get a lot immediately after you train. For many people, it’s better to stagger your protein consumption throughout the day rather than having this one big chunk post-workout. The same goes for calorie replenishment. If you’re really hungry, then that’s your body signaling that you need to eat. But if not, it’s probably not going to hurt to wait a while before your next meal.
What’s a recovery concept you used to think was legitimate, that your research showed wasn’t?
I used to be a big believer in the recovery window when I was an athlete, and would always try to eat as soon after training as possible. But now I know better. Another one is post-exercise icing. In some newer studies, researchers iced one limb but not the other, and they found that the one that wasn’t iced recovered better. When you ice, you’re likely blocking the stimulus needed to prompt repair to the muscular microtears caused by training. I stopped icing as soon as I found this out.
What’s a common mistake athletes make with their recovery?
There are a lot of things people do because of scientific-sounding explanations that don’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, the idea that getting a massage helps flush out excess lactic acid. In fact, by the time you get to the masseuse, your body has already processed that lactic acid. But the massage might provide other benefits. The same is true of infrared saunas. It’s just another fancy name for a particular wavelength of heat. It feels like a traditional steam sauna, but not as hot. Most of the scientific claims don’t hold up, but it felt pretty relaxing nevertheless. I think the main benefit of any kind of recovery is one that isn’t talked about a lot. These practices give you the opportunity to take time out of your day, focus on your body, and feel good.
What are two low-hanging fruit recovery techniques?
The first one is getting better sleep. Of all the recovery methods I’ve researched and tried, nothing comes close to getting a good night’s rest. Skimping on sleep is one of the worst things an athlete can do for their recovery, performance, and overall health. Another one is better managing stress. You need physical stress to prompt adaptation, but psychological and emotional stressors take a real toll. Having a stress management plan in place can be a big help. The better you can handle emotional pressure, the more resilient you’ll be.
Tell me about your float tank experience
I was very skeptical and thought I’d hate it because I’m a little claustrophobic and it seemed like a gimmick. At first I was uncomfortable, but after I got used to the sensory deprivation, I actually ended up enjoying it and finding it stress relieving. It was a kind of forced meditation for people with monkey brains like me. I know a lot of other people who like floating, too, but it’s not for everyone. And I think that’s the point with all kinds of recovery. What works for someone else might not be for you. So you need to experiment with new things, stick with what’s effective, and stop doing anything you don’t like or that stresses you out more than it relaxes you.
What do you think are the pros and cons of fitness tracking?
It can be useful if it helps you pay attention to things that are important, like sleep. But even with this, it can lead to orthosomnia, whereby you become so focused on what your sleep tracker is telling you that you ignore what your body is feeling. That was the case for one woman who checked herself into a sleep clinic because her tracking showed she was getting consistently bad sleep. In fact, the tracker was inaccurate, and she was fine.
And just because your tracker draws your attention to a particular metric, doesn’t mean it’s significant. There is no one single “magic measure.” The closest to it is actually your mood. To a lot of people, this might seem too squishy or subjective, but a lot of physiological inputs contribute to how you feel in the moment. So no matter what you’re tracking, you still need to be aware of your body and what it’s trying to tell you.
We can also fall prey to fixating too much on what other people are doing because they’re sharing their data. This can make you lose track of why you’re training. That’s why I like to run without any tech – just for the sheer enjoyment of it.