Stress Tested

In our obsession with minimizing exercise damage, we may have lost sight of the reason we exercise in the first place: to force our bodies to adapt and get stronger

Stress is Good

Scientific proof that stress is good for you     Photo: Dylan Coulter

AT NIKE'S OREGON PROJECT, a training program for elite distance runners at the company’s sprawling Beaverton campus, athletes have access to pretty much every recovery aid imaginable: a liquid-nitrogen-fueled cryosauna, an antigravity treadmill, an inflatable pneumatic compression tube, and on and on. So when 24-year-old Jackie Areson, an NCAA champ from the University of Tennessee, joined the group last May, she was looking forward to the advantage she’d get from ramping up her postworkout routine with the project’s state-of-the-art techniques.

Instead, her new coach, exercise physiologist Steve Magness, told her to do exactly the opposite. “Whenever I’d mention things that I used to do in college, he’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, don’t do that anymore,’ ” says Areson, who will be chasing an Olympic spot in the 5,000 meters this summer. As Magness explained to her, “You want your body to learn how to recover on its own.”

That theory runs counter to the pill-popping, ice-tubbing, massage-getting habits of most amateur athletes. We’ve become addicted to enhanced recovery, obsessed with erasing as quickly as possible the pain, fatigue, and inflammation that come from a hard workout. But some top scientists and coaches have adopted a new line of thinking: stress is a good thing, because it forces the body to adapt, repair itself, and come back stronger. 

The roots of the approach go back to 2006, when researchers at Chukyo University in Japan published a small study in which volunteers who took ice baths after training made smaller strength gains than a control group. “It got everyone thinking that maybe too much tubbing can actually inhibit recovery,” says Trent Stellingwerff, a physiologist at the Canadian Sport Centre Pacific in Victoria, British Columbia. And if that was true, what other postworkout remedies might be doing more harm than good?

Many of them, actually. For example, trainers have long viewed exercise-induced inflammation as an enemy that should be eliminated. But it’s actually a crucial part of the recovery process. Exercise stresses and sometimes damages tissue, and the inflammation afterwards is caused, in part, by white blood cells rushing to the area to help begin healing. So while ibuprofen or ice baths might reduce swelling in the short term, they could also inhibit your long-term adaptation, says Jonathan Leeder, a physiologist at the English Institute of Sport. “You need that damage and inflammation for the body to repair itself.”

A similar trade-off shows up with antioxidant supplements. Endurance athletes use a lot of oxygen during workouts and generate high levels of potentially damaging “reactive oxygen species,” explains Jeff Coombes, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia. The conventional view is that antioxidants can help neutralize these molecules, limiting damage. But when Coombes reviewed the literature, he found 23 studies suggesting that antioxidants can actually interfere with training adaptations. One study found that an antioxidant cocktail delayed muscle recovery in elite kayakers; another found that vitamins C and E blocked gains in insulin sensitivity.

Coaches and scientists caution that the takeaway shouldn’t be that all recovery is bad. Rather, it’s a question of allowing the body’s recovery processes to take their natural course, not accelerating them so much that the repairs are compromised. That means considering which types of recovery techniques are most helpful and when each one is most effective.

Stellingwerff, Magness, and Leeder all advise the athletes they work with, depending on their training stage, to “periodize” their recovery. During periods of heavy training, the main goal is to push the body hard, so anything that interferes with training adaptations should be avoided. As you get closer to a competition, the focus shifts from gaining fitness to feeling good, so that’s when you ramp up recovery. For example, marathoner Alvina Begay used Nike’s high-tech cryosauna for the first time just two weeks before the Olympic marathon trials in January, after her final hard training session. “By that time, we’re not too worried about losing long-term adaptations,” Magness says. “We’re just focused on the race.”

Of course, even during heavy training there are times when your body needs help—like after going harder than you’ve ever gone before, when the benefits of an ice bath might outweigh the lost adaptation. Ultimately, the trick is to learn how many recovery aids you really need. That goes double for weekend warriors, who are often more obsessed with recouping than elite athletes are. “Is there too much recovery for an Olympic rower training three times a day?” asks Stellingwerff. “I don’t think so.” But for recreational athletes, recovery (and the fear of overtraining) has been “shoved down their throats,” he says. “If you’re running three times a week, you don’t need to worry about recovery so much. You might be sore and tired, but sore and tired isn’t overtraining.” In fact, the new research suggests, it’s the whole point.

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