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From sports drinks to protein powders, from compression therapy to cupping – there is a whole industry of products and services designed to help us adapt and recover from physical exercise.
But does it work? This is the question that the scientific writer Christie Aschwanden wanted to answer in her new book, Good to Go: what the athlete in all of us can learn from the strange science of recovery.
A former high school and university athlete, Aschwanden is the leading science writer for the fivethirtyeight website, and was formerly a health columnist for The Washington Post.
Note that at the time of shooting, not much consideration was given back when it was coming. Now, however, times have changed and recovery is "something you do – and almost with the same taste of the same workouts".
Aschwanden's book examines the physiology behind the different recovery methods and also offers an assessment of their effectiveness. Ultimately, he notes, the best form of recovery could be the old one: listening to one's body.
"The most important skill that an athlete can develop is the feeling of how their body is responding to physical exercise," she says. "How they are responding to their workouts, how they feel, what it is like for them to be recovered or under-recovered."
On sports drinks that have electrolytes
"Electrolytes" is only a scientific name for salts. These are things we get in all the food we eat. … And so, the idea is that when you train, you generate some sort of these extraordinary needs, and … so you have to replace these salts that you're sweating. When you sweat, you lose some salts. Lose fluids. So the idea behind sports drinks is that they are replacing those. …
There are products that promise to find the individual sweat rate and individual saline loss rate, but it turns out that you do not need a scientist to look over your shoulder to understand how much to drink, or how much salt you need after exercise. Our bodies have this really sophisticated mechanism to help us determine this – and it's called thirst.
On the danger of excess hydration
We have been given this message for so long – and so much is marketing – this idea that … you always have to drink and hydrate, hydrate, moisturize. But it turns out that this is not true. This idea and this concept that we must drink even when we are not thirsty has led to this problem which can be truly deadly. It is called hyponatremia. It is also called water intoxication, but this is something where people drink too much water and end up diluting their blood to the point where they have all sorts of problems, including the brain that can swell. And it can really be fatal. …
I do not want to make anyone feel, "Oh my God, I just drank a glass of water, was I really thirsty? How, will I have hyponatremia and die?" This is not what we are talking about. And we're talking about people who drink at the order of, like, more glasses of water at the moment – in particular, during training. But in reality, if you're not thirsty, you do not need to drink. It's really that simple.
Now there have been more people who have died in marathons drinking too much. And one of the things that makes this really scary is that some of the symptoms of overhydration seem very similar to the things we deem symptoms of dehydration. For example, dizziness, confusion, fatigue like this. And so, in some cases, what happened is that you have someone crashing in a race and being given an I.V. and given more fluids, which is exactly the wrong thing at that point for them.
On the genesis of Power Bars and what to eat after a workout
Actually the idea at the beginning was to create a food that would be convenient for athletes – something to eat after a workout easy to grasp, easy on the stomach and all the rest. But in the years that followed, there was a kind of push to think that this is absolutely the necessary thing that you need to eat, and that there must be some important component or some important nutrient … that you really need. …
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these products – I will say it in advance. They tend to have enough good nutrients and ingredients for what you need after a workout. But there is nothing particularly special about them, except they are convenient. … You can have an energy bar or you could have a banana, or you could have a sandwich with peanut butter and jelly – which apparently is the food of choice in the NBA. … But the idea of having something that is a packaged product does not hold water.
The icing after training to reduce pain
The idea behind ice is that it is a way to reduce inflammation. When you're doing something ice, you're reducing the flow of blood in that area. So in practice, if your extremity cools, your body moves into the blood to try to keep you warm. During this period, when the flow of blood is lower than that area, less circulation of these inflammatory things that are part of the inflammatory process is achieved. The idea here is that you will reduce inflammation and that for a long time it was really considered a good thing. …
Now the way of thinking [in terms of icing to reduce soreness] is really changing. … We have learned that inflammation is actually a very important part of the training response. If you're doing exercise in the hope of being fitter, faster, stronger, you really need an inflammation. You need that inflammatory process. You need your immune system to carry these inflammatory things that are coming to make those repairs. So the inflammation process is actually the repair process. Without it, you will not have the same adaptations of the exercise you would do otherwise.
On the problem with the intake of ibuprofen before and after training
It is very common for athletes to take prophylactically. So they will take it before a workout or even before a race. One scenario in which it is very popular is among the ultramarathon. So these are people who are running, say, 50 or 100 or even more miles, and will take these medications during or before the event.
I remember at the time of my high school school, one of my classmates was skipping the ibuprofen before training every day. And now I know after doing research on this book which is a very bad idea. And there are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that again, [in terms of exercise] the inflammation is your friend. If you're training, that's how your body repairs itself. So there are indeed some pretty interesting proofs that the intake of ibuprofen can compromise the repair process from an injury. And this refers both to the type of micro-urination that you get from a hard workout: the small damage to the muscles that your body enters and repairs, and that's what makes you stronger. But also to injuries such as a sprained ankle and things like that. Therefore, taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug or taking ibuprofen may actually hinder the healing process. I do not think anyone wants to do it
At the same time, I will say, however, that if you are very sore these are really excellent painkillers. And this is probably a good reason to take it. But you want to limit it and say you want to take it only when you really need that pain relief – and not [with] an expectation that you will feel pain
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie has produced and assembled the 39; audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper have adapted for the Web.