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Mar 6, 2019

Sports Recovery Secrets from Scientists

The quicker you recuperate, the more you can train. (Photo: Moof/Cultura/Aurora)
The quicker you recuperate, the more you can train.

Recovery is the new frontier of athletic performance. The quicker you recuperate, the more you can train, and pro athletes across sports have been revitalizing their careers by taking time off. Now a wave of new recovery technologies are being pitched to a broader market: boots that improve blood flow, cryochambers, infrared pajamas. Science writer Christie Aschwanden saw all this and started looking into some of the product claims—and into classic recovery techniques like ice, massage, and ibuprofen. At a live event at Powell’s Books, in Portland, Oregon, she spoke with Outside Podcast host Peter Frick-Wright about her new book Good to Go, in which she lays out the surprising answers to the most important recovery question of all: What works and what doesn’t?

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are Dispatches, stories from our writers in the field. 

Peter Frick-Wright (host): Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing science writer, Christie Aschwanden about her new book, Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery. Recovery is the big new topic among athletes, because the quicker you recover, the more you can train, and top pro athletes in a lot of sports are extending their careers and returning to peak form by simply taking time off. But as the word has gotten out about recovery, something almost like a recovery industrial complex has emerged and now there are all sorts of real and bogus recovery aids flooding the market. So in her book, Christie takes a look at the science behind all these new gadgets and ideas being thrown around. This conversation was part of a live event in Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, and it was a fun time. So we're just going to play a big chunk of the talk for you. But it might help to know that as this talk is taking place, I'm recovering from ankle surgery, so I have to crutch my way on stage and then sit there in a big walking boot goes up to my knee. It's very meta and theatrical. It kind of looks like we planned it, but we didn't. Anyway. Here we are on stage. 

(live interview at Powell’s) Thank you everybody for coming. Thank you Powell’s for hosting us. Thank you Christie. It's great to meet you. I feel like I've been in your head for the last couple of weeks reading this book and thinking, outlining this interview. And just in a little bit of searching, I actually realized we have quite a bit in common. We both write for Outside. We both raised chickens -- the small facts. Christie actually wrote a book about chickens. Is that your first book? 

Aschwanden: People ask me if Good to Go is my first book and I like to say, well, it pretty much is, but I did provide the text for a beautiful book about chickens. It's really a coffee table book of -- I call it poultry porn. 

Frick-Wright: It's an interesting transition to say the least, like when you look at the book history. Like we say, very interested in recovery, at the moment. I want to start things off just kind of getting an overall like bird's eye view, as you might say to a chicken raiser, of recovery and just kind of the current moment we're in because it seems like this topic is too small for a whole book, right? To the layperson, you sort of think I'm going to read a book about fitness or science or the kind of overall human body. There shouldn't be enough to fill a whole book about recovery. So how did we get to this point that you looked at this topic and said, yep, that's going to be my first non-chicken related book. 

Aschwanden: Yeah. I mean it was a big question going from chickens to something else -- it was kind of a big move and I wanted to be really careful and make sure that it was a worthy topic. But I will say this book came about, actually my fantastic, phenomenal editor at Norton, Matt Wylin actually came to me, and asked, he had become familiar with my work and wondered if I'd be interested in writing a book about exercise recovery. And I thought, Oh, that sounds really boring. I can say that now. But I talked to Matt and he's wonderful and I would do anything for him. But I also started looking into it and thinking about it a little bit more and realized that the topic was right. Like we're sort of at a moment and in fact, if you will humor me for a moment, I think I should just read a short passage from the book. 

Before I begin, I'll just preface it by saying I should tell you a little bit about myself. I've been an athlete since I was a teenager. I was a high school track star. I ran for the University of Colorado. While I was at CU, I got injured and so during that time of being injured, I started cycling and cross country skiing. And next thing I knew I was competing on the cycling team and also the ski team and I went on after college to bike race pretty seriously for a few years. And then, I was on a pro cross country ski team traveling the world doing that. So I have sort of this background as an elite athlete. This was in the ‘90s and 2000s. And so I'm just going to read a little passage that gets at that. 

In the interest of keeping this short, I will just say that this is -- the introduction of the book begins at the Denver Sports Recovery Center, which is sort of like a gym for recovery that instead of going to lift weights, you go to use all of these recovery gadgets and gizmos. It's really weird and strange. And so I'm getting ready to leave the place and I'm trying out this device called the Swisswing, which sort of looks like a big trash can set on its side that vibrates. It feels really good. 

I was jutting my butt onto the self-serve massage barrel when a middle aged guy who looked like he'd been working off a small beer belly, approached to ask how I liked it. This wasn't as creepy as it sounds. He was training for a marathon, he said, and had recently started coming to Denver Sports Recovery because his long runs were beating him up. He liked the Swisswing too. And I realized that he wasn't just being friendly. He was waiting for me to finish so he could have his turn. 

How did I end up in a fancy gym jiggling my butt on a giant vibrator when I was a serious athlete? In the 1990s and 2000s,  recovery was a noun, a state of being you hoped to attain through all the things you weren't doing, like training, standing around on your feet, staying out late socializing or getting caught up in stressful activities. Recovery meant resting. And the only thing you did was sleep and lie back with your feet up and your nose in a book. 

Today, recovery has become a verb. It's something that athletes, pro and weekend warriors alike, do with almost as much gusto and drive as their training. Recovery even has its own gear. Now, the first time I heard someone say she needed to go “do my recovery,” I cringed. By the 10th time I'd come to understand that recovery is no longer a waiting period between workouts. Instead it's become an active extension of training itself. 

Frick-Wright: How did we get there? Is there anything that changed specifically or that evolved or like what was the run up to this moment where people are opening recovery gyms? 

Aschwanden: Yeah, I tried pretty hard while researching the book to find like, where was this -- do you guys all remember Born To Run, the book where that really popularized barefoot running? And I was like, what is the Born To Run moment for these recovery gadgets? And I couldn't ever like one specific event. But what I did find is that for a long time we've had all of these gadgets and products that have been marketed at athletes and it's almost like those things were all depleted. They were old news and these companies were looking for new things and it was just -- the science of recovery hasn't changed that much, but I think that there's kind of a new appreciation that recovery is really important and that it's a crucial part of the whole training process. And with that though has come these companies and these people swooping in to offer these products. 

And I think so much of it is really based on this idea that it feels like we're at a moment right now in our society where we've sort of been told that there's this ideal version of ourselves that's just waiting; it's like one weird trick away and if we could only figure out the right things and do everything just perfectly, we could perfectly optimize ourselves and reach perfect peak performance. And so I think that a lot of it really rests on that and it plays on that fear of missing out. There may be something you're not doing and the fear that you need to do something a little bit more or you're missing out on your perfect self. 

Frick-Wright: Can you just run through some of the like wackier things that are at that gym or like that you encountered in your reporting overall? 

Aschwanden: Yeah, sure. So at the Denver Sports Recovery, they had pneumatic compression pants. NormaTec is one of the most popular brands. They look like sort of these sleeping bags that go on your legs and you flip a button and they pump up and they sort of massage your legs. They actually feel really nice. They're very popular among athletes. They have cold baths, hot baths, they had an infrared sauna. Those are really popular. I talk about those in the book. They had cryotherapy. This is where you're basically standing naked in a steel drum and they released liquid nitrogen. It's really cold. It feels like standing naked in a snowstorm. And then there are some of the goofier things that I found -- there's an NBA star who popularized wine baths, which could get kind of expensive. I was never able to try it. My husband's a winemaker and I told him, Hey, I really got to try this, it's for the book. And he was like, my wine's too good for that. So I never got a chance to try that one. 

Frick-Wright: I feel like you could have sold it as like the special Good to Go Edition Red Vino or...uh. For listeners in the future on the podcast, Christie has run over to the side and is -- wow, she's 10 steps ahead of me and has produced a bottle of Good to Go wine that will now replace the water on the table for the rest of-- 

So your husband makes wine, you didn't get a chance to bathe yourself in it, but you open the book on with a chapter that's actually a little bit different than the rest of the book. It's a chapter on your own experiments with beer and asking the crucial question, is beer good for you after a race or training session? This is a question I didn't realize that I had for the world, but as soon as I read it, I was like, Oh yeah, we're going to get into this. I need to know if beer after an event will make me faster the next time. Why start the book here? Why start the book with the beer experiment? 

Aschwanden: Well, I like to start with the most important questions first, right? In all seriousness, I started the book with the beer experiment -- and so I'll just back up for a second and say, I had been doing like many other -- maybe it's just me, maybe I just hang out with a bunch of people who like to drink, and that’s certainly the case, but I have multiple social groups where we like to go out and either mountain bike or run or do something and afterwards drink a beer and we're not getting drunk, we're not throwing back 20 beers or something, but it's just a nice cold, refreshing beverage after a hot day’s effort. And I started thinking, alcohol is a little bit like coffee. It's a little bit mind altering. It's pleasant. And so we sort of suspect that it's bad for us even as we hope that it's not. 

And so I started thinking about this and I'm a science journalist by training and vocation. And I went to the scientific literature and tried to find answers. Like, is this bad for me? Is it good for me? There's some promotions now. There are actually some companies that are promoting recovery beers. They're low alcohol, in some cases non alcohol. But the idea is like, Oh yeah, beer is mostly water, that's why it makes you pee so much, but it also has some minerals. So the idea is like, maybe it's good for you; it's got carbs, it could be a perfectly good recovery beverage. And so I was interested in this, but I was not finding the answers I wanted in the scientific literature. And I don't just mean that the studies that were there weren't saying what I wanted them to, but there just weren't studies that were looking specifically at this problem. And so I talked Runner's World into bankrolling the study to actually look at it. And so I partnered with some researchers at my local university, Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. And we actually did a study. We recruited some people to do this and I thought, okay, we're going to do this study and I'll get some answers. But that's not exactly what happened. 

Frick-Wright: The chapter of the book kind of takes us through the methods that you used and like a time to exhaustion test, which is kind of one of the standard tests for testing recovery. You take us through this whole thing. You take us through your results. Like beer is somehow good for women, but bad for men in recovery, which seems like bias if I've ever seen an instance of it. 

Aschwanden: That's because you're a man. I'm a woman married to a man and I love this result. Like this is science sweetie. You're the driver, you're the designated driver, I'm the drinker. 

Frick-Wright: So I guess I'm wondering did you start it here to get -- are problems like that endemic in like these experiments that are looking at recovery science -- is it just kind of overall bad science? Is it just too hard to isolate the effects of recovery? Like what's going on? 

Aschwanden: Yeah. So the problem here, and this is the reason that I started with the beer study, is that it's not that it's bad science, it's that it's a really difficult problem. So studying any kind of sports performance and the human body in general -- like we're very complex, our bodies are very complex. These things that you're measuring, these physiological measures can be very, very variable and they're actually, the test that we were using in our study, it turned out were highly variable. In sports science, a very small difference -- let's just hypothetically speaking, say beer could make you 3% faster if you drank it, the next day your run, you'd be 3% faster. Well, in the real world, that would be significant. I mean, you can imagine a scenario where that's the difference between winning a race and being an also-ran. 

So in, in this scenario, we're interested in these small effects, but the problem is that you're looking for small effects using very small sample sizes. So in sport science, it's very common to have small studies like ours. We had 10 people, which seems ridiculously small, but it's actually pretty standard in the scientific literature looking at this field. And there's some good reasons for that I won't get into, but it just sort of has to do with being able to recruit enough people, getting them into the lab. It's sort of tricky. So what ends up happening is you're looking for small effects using small sample sizes. So you have this fundamental problem of trying to distinguish signal from noise and the data are really noisy and it's really hard to know that the sample that you have is representative. 

What ends up happening is -- my question was if I drink beer after the run, am I going to feel lousy the next day? Is this going to result in me having some sort of regret the next day? Will my workout not be as good? Will I not perform as well? But the study that we did -- and I'll just say, so I was not only a planner of the study, the scientists sort of had the final word and it was their study, but I was very involved in the planning. But I was also a participant and as a participant I sort of came to view some of these things differently and I saw some problems that weren't obvious to me as a planner of the study. And I'll just give you an example. 

The tests that we use to determine recovery was something called a run to exhaustion. So you're basically put on a treadmill at a pretty hard speed, not all out, too hard to really have a comfortable conversation and you just have to do that until you can't do it any longer. And this is a standard test. It's used all the time, never questioned it. But as a participant I felt like this is more like a psychological study. It's more like testing how motivated I am to continue. Like, how dedicated am I to this study? We actually had a guy in the study who came with his daughter one day and she wanted to go. So he was like, I probably could have lasted longer, but she was there and getting kind of cranky. 

There's also the condition -- so this was actually placebo controlled. Everyone did the study protocol twice, once with our real beer, which was a very nice Colorado Fat Tire Amber ale. And then we had a placebo beer, which was a beer with no alcohol; it's kind of only redeeming quality was that it looked very similar in the plastic glass. So that was our control. But it turns out that you can't fool people. Everyone knew which beer they were getting. And this is a really common problem that I saw in all the studies I was looking at for different recovery products; for icing, how do you do a good placebo? You really can't. And so this makes it very difficult to distinguish actual physiological benefits from placebo effect. And it turns out, looking at these things, one of the things that I sort of concluded was that, in many cases, a lot of these things when they work, they're working through the placebo effect. So you expect to feel better because you've done this thing and therefore you do. 

And these are real effects. I want to be clear here -- I'm sort of pro placebo. I'm not pro spending money on ineffective things or getting stressed out that you're not doing something that really isn't doing anything physiological. But at the same time, your expectation of how you're going to feel actually exerts a very large influence on how you actually experienced that thing. So if I think that doing an ice bath is going to make me less sore, it's pretty possible that I will actually feel less sore the next day just because that's how I expect to feel. And that's going to sort of influence how I am interpreting that experience. 

Frick-Wright: Well, let's, let's talk about ice baths and let's talk about a lot of the things that a lot of athletes that I know sort of hold sacred that you completely destroy and in some cases destroy and then build back up again. To me this was the most interesting one because I mean, it's just gospel that if you hurt yourself, you ice it, you elevate it. To read that, maybe that's not the case. You know, I'd kind of read headlines a couple of years ago that like people are starting to question the kind of protocol of icing after an injury. But I had not heard about icing after a workout, icing for recovery as being problematic. Where did, like overall, where did original skepticism about icing come from and who and how did they kind of switch the thinking? 

Aschwanden: Yeah. So in the book I talk about a guy who's waging what I call the ice war. He’s a guy named Gary Reynaud and he's kind of a journalist really, and he consults on sports teams. Not a scientist himself, but he was sort of looking into this and became convinced, just sort of looking at the basic physiology that it didn't make sense. But there are other people as well. Gabe Mirkin, who was one of the popular risers of RICE: rest, ice, compression elevation. And he has come to think that this isn't good either, but basically the idea is this: one of the cells for ice is that it's reducing inflammation, but it turns out that inflammation is your friend; inflammation as a part of your body's healing process. And when you're training, when you're training with the idea of getting fitter, faster, stronger, what you're really trying to do is force adaptations with your body. And some of those adaptations come about through the inflammatory process. So if you reduce inflammation, you're also reducing your response to exercise. 

I described in the book some interesting studies where they actually put people on an exercise plan or a strength training plan where then they iced one limb but not the other, and the limb that was iced had fewer gains, got less strong. There was some interesting stuff going on with proteins where they weren't taking up as much -- and like there were tangible differences where I assumed was actually reducing that. So you're reducing the response that you will get. We think about a lot of this stuff as being like, we want to feel better and we want things to go faster, but it turns out that in some cases your body is actually really good at doing these things. And when, when you start to try to interfere, you're actually at risk of making things worse. 

Frick-Wright: No one is like storming out, I'm a little surprised. Let's see if we can get you with this one. Ibuprofen, I mean vitamin I as a lot of people call it -- why take down ibuprofen when it helps so many people?

Aschwanden: I love the way you asked that question, right? I feel like we might have a vitamin I, addict here upstage. So it goes back to the same thing with icing. It's inflammation. And so the idea here is that runners in particular, but many athletes, like to take vitamin I, ibuprofen, before an event or they'll take it prophylactically. So the idea is like, I know I'm going to be sore and so I'm going to take this thing, it's going to reduce my inflammation. I'll feel better. It's going to somehow prevent things. But this goes back to the same reason you don't want to ice. If it is in fact reducing inflammation, then you're not getting, not just the benefits from exercise, but if you are having an injury, there's actually some research now showing that like, let's say you have a sprained ankle or things like this -- that the healing process has actually slowed by taking anti-inflammatory drugs. 

Now these things, vitamin I, ibuprofen, is a really powerful pain killer. And there's no doubt that when you're in a lot of pain, that's a good thing to take. And I would never tell someone not to take, like to just suffer through like -- the reduction that you're going to get in the healing and all that is not so great that it's not maybe a trade off that's good. But it doesn't make sense when you're just doing it in hopes of preventing soreness. There's absolutely no evidence that it will prevent soreness actually. But there's also evidence that ultra marathoners really like to take these particularly during events. And it turns out that it doesn't seem to be reducing inflammation that much when they're doing that. And so this reason that they're doing it isn't really panning out. And when you're doing an ultra marathon, all sorts of things go on with your metabolism. So it actually can be dangerous to do this because your body may have trouble processing some of that. And people have ended up in the hospital from taking a lot of ibuprofen during exercise. 

Frick-Wright: Okay. Last one: massage. Gasps. This one came off a little bit different, but massages are also very coveted by athletes and especially like cyclists who travel with a masseuse. So is this a matter of it works but we don't know why and we can't seem to test for the mechanism? Or is it a matter of massage actually may be entirely placebo? 

Aschwanden: So I think it's a little bit of the former. So massage is a really good example of something that I found over and over again when I was researching some of these different recovery techniques. And that is you have something that's being sold with these sort of magical scientific or I would say pseudoscientific explanations. So in this case, like one reason that's often given for massage is that you're flushing out lactic acid or you're flushing out other metabolic products of exercise. But it turns out that there's really not good evidence for that. And particularly, I mean, I'll just give you a hot tip. Anytime someone tells you they're doing something to flush lactic acid, like set that aside, that's a red flag. Lactic acid is not what makes you sore. It turns out we used to think that we now know that that's not the case, but also your body's really good at taking care of lactic acid. So basically by the time you get around to using any of these things, that lactic acid is already gone. So that's sort of a bogus claim. 

But what massage does do is make you feel really good and you're also sort of taking some time out of your day, you're not getting tied up in all these other things. I mean, it's really a forced break from all the stressful stuff in your life, right? And at its most basic form, that's what recovery is. Like recovery is literally like rest and relaxation. And one of the things that I sort of concluded looking at all of this stuff, is it so much of what these things do is give you something to do while you're waiting for your body to recover naturally on its own. 

Frick-Wright: Like you said in the introduction, like tipping back with a book on the couch like that. I mean, kind of the takeaway is that's what it comes down to. Is that a fair read? 

Aschwanden: Absolutely. I love massage. I think it's great. I think it's a great recovery tool. And I think one of the things that I concluded is that we don't need these pseudoscientific explanations for things. Something that makes you feel relaxed and something that makes you feel good. Like that's legit. You don't need some sort of bogus science to convince you. And it's really interesting. So in the book I have an example of this. I think one thing with massage is that it also helps athletes with body awareness. And so this is something, in some cases, there may be these sort of intangible benefits that are really hard to measure like in a blood test or some sort of physiological measure. But body awareness can be really helpful to an athlete. And so when you're being massaged and you're sort of checking in on your body and getting a sense of how each muscle feels and if you ever had a massage, you've probably found like, Oh my gosh, I didn't even realize I had that sore spot. And so you're sort of checking in on your body. I think that that's really important for athletes. 

I sort of argue in the book that the most important skill that any athlete can develop is a really acute sense of reading their own body's signals and reading things like whether it's thirst or hunger or soreness or fatigue, but understanding what those signals mean for you because they're very individual. So it's sort of like every athlete is under recovered or whatever in their own way. And this is pretty well documented. I have a whole chapter in the book about sort of the search for the magic metric; the special thing that you're going to be able to measure on your sports watch that will tell you whether you're recovered or not. But it turns out that there is no such thing, at least not something that's a physiological measure. It's really individual. And it turns out that in terms of something that you can sort of use any kind of test to figure out, mood is actually the most powerful predictor of whether someone's recovered or not. 

Frick-Wright: Yeah. Okay. So I have a very specific question. Okay. 

(voiceover) So at this point in the talk, we actually lost the mic that my audio recorder is plugged into that failed; I'm not sure why. So we don't have Christie's live answers to my questions about mood. So after this break, we're going to continue the conversation and talk about recovery tools that work. In fact, there's one that works better than anything else. We'll be back in a second. 

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Frick-Wright: So when we left off I was asking a question about mood and how it affects recovery. In fact, we lost the recording while I was talking about a friend of mine who works with a trainer who actually incorporates mood evaluation into his workout planning. Every time he goes to the gym they do some math to figure out a range of weight for each exercise. But then the final number is determined by how he rates his mood according to a color coding system. Is he in a good mood, which would indicate that he lifted the upper end of that range or should he back off cause he's feeling down and I've never really understood what's going on here. For me, exercise is usually a way to artificially improve my mood. And so when Kristi finished her book tour and got back to her house, I called her up again and asked, what's going on here? What does your mood have to do with your recovery? 

Aschwanden: So I love that color coding system. It's so clever because it's really true that it's not so much that mood affects recovery and rest. Although it does, now that I'm thinking about that, that's an interesting question. It kind of goes both ways, I would imagine. But it's absolutely true that when you're under recovered or you're over-training, that will suppress your mood. So in other word, when you're training really hard, it's very natural to sort of feel a little bit moody, a little bit testy. Perhaps people around you will notice that you're a little cranky. And so this is a really good measure actually of recovery. And it's interesting. This is actually the best measure that anyone's found of recovery, in fact, which is a little bit counterintuitive because we're all sort of looking for this metric that we can see on our sports watch that will tell us that we're recovered or not. 

But it turns out that the psychological side of recovery is really powerful and it's very indicative. And it's something that is sort of your body is taking all of its inputs of physiology and you know what's happening in your muscles and your cardiovascular system, all of that. Your brain sort of puts this together in this sense of wellness and wellbeing. And so when you're tired and when you're under recovered, you're going to feel that psychologically too. And so this comes out in mood. And in fact, in the book I talk about a coach who actually tries to befriend the spouse or roommates of his athletes because he finds that when the athlete's roommate says, Oh yeah, he's really moody or he's really cranky. That's usually a sign that it's time to back off the training. 

Frick-Wright: And so is this happening at a conscious level? Like are people like, Oh, I'm, you know, I'm in kind of a down mood because I've trained too much or are people sort of surprised to learn that that's what's going on? 

Aschwanden: In my experience, a lot of athletes, particularly athletes who are sort of working professionals who are pursuing a sport maybe at a high level, but sort of on top of this working life, that oftentimes these people will, will have the sense of like, Oh, I don't feel like trading today. I'm in a bad mood. And like what's wrong with me? They'll sort of internalize that and think, Oh, it must be like a personal failing that I'm not motivated to train today when in fact it may just be their body telling them, help, give me some rest. And this is particularly true in people who are extremely motivated and really driven. 

Frick-Wright: And do you need to get to a point of like chronic fatigue for this to happen or does it happen if you work out one day or two days, will you kind of see that reflected in your mood? 

Aschwanden: Yeah, so it's a little bit of both. So certainly chronic over-training or chronic high workloads will create this and in fact, depressed mood is a sign and a symptom of overtraining, but it's something that can happen even on the smaller level. And this makes it a little bit tricky because if you're doing, let's say a block of hardtraining and you're doing that with the intention of getting fitter you may have to sort of make yourself a little bit tired. And so finding that line can be a little bit tricky. But if this is something that's happening day after day, and if it’s something that's bouncing back after a good night's sleep, it's probably a sign that it's time to back off a little bit.

Frick-Wright: Gotcha. And then just the last thing before we go you talk about in the book, all of these different recovery tools and some of them work and some of them don't and some of them are kind of in the middle. But you talk about one thing that really does work and unambiguously so, and I wonder if you could just tell us what that is and how it's been studied. 

Aschwanden: Sure, you're talking about sleep and it's the most powerful recovery tool known to science. I mean, it's just hands down the best. Nothing else even comes close. And so in a way, it's kind of funny that we have all this marketing around these things that when they work create just tiny little differences and they may help you, but the amount of improvement you'll get from one of these devices is just minuscule compared to getting regular relaxed good sleep. 

Frick-Wright: Gotcha. And so, I mean, everybody knows that sleeping is the thing you do to recover. But like reading your book, it almost gave a sense that like there was a competitive advantage to be had by out sleeping your competition. 

Aschwanden: Oh, absolutely. There's really interesting research out of Stanford where they actually took some of the collegiate teams there and made them or got them to commit to sleeping more. And so it wasn't just that they were sleeping more, which they inevitably were, but they really were like setting it up so that they had bedtimes and wake times that ensured that they were in bed like 9 or 10 hours a night. So even if they were waking up in that time, they were staying in bed, they weren't up moving out and about. And so what happened when they did this is they actually found performance benefits -- the basketball team, they were shooting better, they had more points, things like this. So that this translated into tangible improvements in performance. 

Frick-Wright: How do you feel about that kind of takeaway? I mean, Outside reviewed your book and it kind of boiled down to like everybody, sleep is the answer. And you've written this book about recovery and the biggest takeaway is like quality of sleep and length of sleep is the thing that matters the most to your recovery. And like, that's so intuitive. How do you feel about that being kind of like the centerpiece of the book? 

Aschwanden: Yeah. Right. I mean, so you're basically asking like, so your whole book is just sort of like sleep well, eat your vegetables and all the things your mom used to tell you. And it's absolutely true, but I think at the same time, we're in this moment where we've really gotten away from the basics. The basics are really important, but they're not always easy to get right. And particularly, where we're at right now, so many athletes, it's almost become a point of pride when people talk about how little sleep they're getting and all these things that they're doing. How busy everyone is. And so we've really lost the sense that sleep should be a priority. And if you're an athlete, sleep should be as much of a priority as your training is. It really should be, but it's not something that we're good at doing.I have sort of written a book that says just master the basics. And so on the one hand you can say why even bother reading it. I hope that there's some other useful information in there, but at the same time, I think that the ultimate takeaway is really encouraging. It means that you can quit stressing out about all this stuff that everyone's telling you you need to be worried about and really you don't need to sweat the small stuff. You need to just master the basics. 

Frick-Wright: I will say that the book is full of other interesting things. I wasn't trying to take that away from you in any way. 

Aschwanden: Yeah, no, I know you weren’t, for sure, for sure. But I think that so many of these products and so many of these methods really turn on this FOMO, the fear of missing out, and people are so anxious that they're not doing everything perfectly and that they're missing out on this better self of theirs. And looking into the science as I did, I found that that just really isn't the case. Our bodies are really adaptable. We're capable of adapting to whatever kinds of things we throw at it. And yeah, you want to do things right, but we've sort of put this emphasis on perfecting the wrong things. And so if you want to perfect something, it should be sleep. 

Frick-Wright: I think that's a great spot to leave it. Christie, thank you so much for joining me on stage and then joining me by phone again. 

Aschwanden: Of course. Of course. It was my pleasure. So fun talking with you. 

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OUTRO

Frick-Wright: That’s science writer, Christie Aschwanden. Thanks very much to Christie and everyone at Powell’s Books. It was brought to you by Bob's Red Mill and Bob's Better Bars, healthy energy bars available in peanut butter and chocolate peanut butter and banana PB and Apple spice PB and coconut and peanut butter and jelly. They're new from Bob's. Check them out. 

The Outside Podcast is a production of Outside Magazine and PRX. We'll be back in two weeks.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.