The current science behind sports recovery explained for athletes and average joes

My key takeaways from Good to Go:

  1. Many sports recovery methods don’t have solid science behind them
  2. The human body is made to move and therefore has all the means to help you recover from exercise without needing outside help
  3. If a recovery modality doesn’t have strong scientific evidence behind it, but makes you feel better and doesn’t harm you, it might be positive anyway

Good to Go explores the latest trend of “recovery” in sports and fitness and asks which recovery modalities actually work according to science. It’s written by Christie Aschwanden, an elite athlete and FiveThirtyEight science writer, and evaluates the current research behind many of the sacred cows in the sports recovery industry.

Table of contents

I found Good to Go to be a refreshing take on the huge number of sports recovery products and therapies available today. Every day seems to bring another gadget or product to get better athletic performance or recovery, and Good to Go is a sobering look at the science, or lack thereof, behind many of these products.

Good to Go puts most recovery methods under the microscope including hydration, supplements, massages, infrared saunas, compression, meditation and floating, cold therapy and icing, sleep and post-recovery nutrition.

Aschwanden uses many of these recovery modalities herself and interviews many scientific experts, industry leaders and athletes throughout the course of the book. If you’re interested in getting more out of your sports recovery, I highly recommend Good to Go.

Throughout Good to Go, Aschwanden explores the methodology behind some of the scientific studies supporting various recovery methods. In some cases she raises the point that rigorous testing may never be possible. For example it’s hard to create a placebo when testing the effectiveness of cold therapy because you can’t convincingly recreate the sensation of cold.

Other problems stem from the design of the studies themselves. Studies on supplement effectiveness for example often have small sample sizes or test the supplement on a non-athletic population type.

The importance of placebo in sports recovery

According to Aschwanden’s research, not every recovery method actually stands up to scientific scrutiny and there’s a whole lot that is “promising but unproven”. Before I delve into my summary of Good to Go there’s an important takeaway regarding the placebo effect that I took from this book.

Aschwanden interviews David Martin, the Director of Performance Research and Development with the Philadelphia 76ers and a former sports scientist at the Australian Institute of Sport about his thoughts on the current recovery modalities. He thinks most of the popular recovery methods we use work through the placebo effect, but that this isn’t negative because of the powerful body response this effect can encourage. He says “It doesn’t matter if there’s science to back it up. If an athlete strongly believes that something works, the belief effect can overwhelm the real effect”

Good to Go makes the point that even if many recovery modalities don’t have robust scientific evidence, maybe the fact that they force you to stop working out or training is still a positive for some. Also, if a recovery method gives an athlete more confidence, maybe it’s still worth it. With all that being said, here’s my summary of the key parts of Good to Go, starting with what doesn’t necessarily work or requires more research.

What doesn’t help with sports recovery?

Icing

For many years icing has been seen as a way to heal sports injuries, and in recent years cold exposure has been glorified by the cryosauna craze. According to Aschwanden’s research, icing might actually delay the healing process by suppressing our natural inflammation and immune response.

According to Gary Reinl, a reporter and author Aschwanden interviews in the book, icing just slows blood flow down rather than stopping it completely. Once the ice is removed, the blood flow just continues as normal.

Good to Go also explores the cryosauna craze. It mentions a study that showed that while the cryosauna itself was cold (in this case -180°C), the decrease in skin temperature was only between -4°C and -14°C, and muscle temperature only decreased by -1.1°C. It also mentions a 2015 review of the scientific literature surrounding cryotherapy which found that the existing studies were of low quality.

Supplements

Supplements are promoted for a huge variety of reasons, from sports recovery and performance to health and longevity. I myself take a good five or so different tablets each day. Good to Go explains that few supplements have evidence to support them from a recovery perspective, and that FOMO between athletes is actually the key reason why many take them.

The book also explores the scientific studies underpinning supplements and uncovers some shady practices. One is the practice of publishing supplement studies in what are called “predatory publishers”. These are journals with a much lower bar for publishing studies than trusted big-name journals. Then there’s also the aforementioned small sample sizes used in some studies, and the use of study participants that don’t actually represent athletes.

Aschwanden includes an interview with International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) CEO and co-founder Jose Antoine who makes an interesting counter-claim about the lack of science supporting many of the positive recovery claims of food. It’s an interesting topic I’d like to research further myself. Still, this chapter made me re-examine why I’m taking supplements and if I could get by without them.

Post-workout drinks and meals

When I was a teenager I would often hear that the key to maximising muscle growth after a workout was to drink a protein shake within 30 – 45 minutes of the workout. Aschwanden explains that the post-exercise anabolic window has not really been supported by scientific evidence, and that by eating a regular breakfast, lunch and dinner it’s impossible not to put that food to good recovery work.

I stopped drinking protein shakes many years ago, and it’s reassuring that according to Good to Go, recent science has shown there’s no evidence that protein shakes have better effects on recovery than regular food.

It’s a confusing topic but the book does a good job at presenting current scientific evidence and expert interviews to show that unless you’re at the highest levels of competition and are competing a number of times with hours between each competition, your body is more than capable of handling your recovery with enough calories nutrients and an overall good diet.

Infrared saunas

Aschwanden examines the common research behind infrared saunas and the purported benefits that they have in flushing toxins from the body. She found that the claims are built on very small studies, some of which are animal studies.

Massage

Massage is near and dear to my heart, so it was hard to hear that according to Good to Go there’s little evidence that it helps with recovery or performance, unless you only have up to 10 minutes to recover between bouts or rounds of a sport. There’s also no evidence that massage clears lactate, and even if it did, lactic acid might not cause muscle soreness anyway.

What does help with sports recovery?

Float tanks and meditation

Some of my favourite relaxation methods are floating and meditation. Thankfully, Good to Go provides some positive thoughts about floating and its effects on sports performance and recovery.

Aschwanden mentions the US Air Force’s STRONG program and its positive findings after using the float tank, such as a 25% reduction in blood cortisol levels before and after a float. She also points to a 2016 study that showed floating reduced muscle soreness and improved moods for 60 elite athletes from 9 different sports. Floating also has positive benefits for improving an athlete’s mental focus, and can help relax both overstimulated and exhausted users.

Sleep

After reading Matthew Walker’s exceptional book Why We Sleep, I already knew how important sleep was for performance and recovery. Good to Go reaffirms this point, labelling sleep as “hands-down the most powerful recovery tool known to science” for its benefits in releasing testosterone and growth hormone to kickstart tissue repair.

The book also shows that lack of quality sleep has a large impact on performance and recovery. The book refers to studies showing that sleeping for only 5 hours per night can cause a 10 – 15% drop in testosterone in men, and that sleeping for only 6 hours per night can double and even triple your reaction times.

Overtraining and measuring recovery

Good to Go also includes great chapters about overtraining and our obsession with measuring recovery. Aschwanden ends the chapter on overtraining by showing that there’s not yet a “cure” for overtraining, so research is mostly centered on prevention and measuring recovery.

I found these chapters very interesting, as I’m obsessed with tracking my recovery through my Oura ring. Aschwanden explores how different experts are trying to measure and quantify overtraining and recovery in athletes and the challenges associated with this.

She also explores the user of blood markers, heart rate and heart rate variability and its use in sports recovery and performance.

An interesting take away I got from this chapter is that exercise actually protects against injuries, but that evidence shows the greatest risk of injuries comes from training spikes when you usually have a very low training load or a very high training load. She gives the example of someone taking time off of training because of an illness, coming back and then jumping back into intensive training only to injure themselves. Consistency with training loads seems to be an effective preventative method.

The second take away from these chapters is that your morning mood can be a great indicator of how recovered you are. I’ve noticed that when I feel stressed and physically exhausted my mood dives, so this makes sense to me.

Good to Go is an engaging and understandable digest of the current science behind sports recovery in 2019. It’s refreshing and simplifies the concept. It’s a great reminder to trust your body and mind when it comes to training rather than the latest wearable or supplement. On the bright side, this also means you’ll have to spend much less time and money on recovery.

I got so much out of Good to Go. Two of the other game changing takeaways I got were:

  1. Stretching does not reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or reduce injury risk
  2. Lactic acid is probably not responsible for the burn you feel during exercise or muscle soreness after exercise, and may actually be a fuel source
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2 Comments

  1. Great review, thank you! What about regular heat sauna? Is it more effective than infrared?

    • Marc Reply

      Hi Oleg! Thanks for the kind words.

      This is a great question which I’ve often wondered myself and will explore at a later date. An interesting review published in 2018 by RMIT University in Australia went through the science of sauna use and found that the results may be the same regardless of the type of sauna: “This suggests that heat stress, whether induced by infrared or Finnish-style sauna, causes significant sweating that is likely to lead to hormetic adaptation and beneficial cardiovascular and metabolic effects.”

      I’d highly recommend reading through the full article if you’d like more information.

      Hope this helps!

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