Christie Aschwanden Tackles the Science of Exercise Recovery

Anna Barry-Jester

Christie Aschwanden

Christie Aschwanden thought writing a book about how the body recovers from exercise and builds resilience for further challenges should be easy. A former elite-level runner, cyclist, and skier herself, she understood all too well the challenges that recovery brings, and the tricks and tools that athletes use to build strength and endurance. In her mind’s eye, she could almost picture how the chapters would unspool. But as she dug into reporting and writing her new book, Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery, she learned how mistaken she’d been—laughably so, she says. As her manuscript evolved, Aschwanden, a longtime journalist who is the lead science writer at FiveThirtyEight, discovered how writing a book differs from writing a series of magazine articles.

She also developed a new appreciation for just how difficult it is to study recovery well. Even as she debunked the claims of charlatans hawking recovery methods that ranged from unnecessary to dangerous to physiologically impossible, she also came away with a deep respect for researchers in the field, because “recovery is an extremely difficult nut to crack.”

Here, Aschwanden tells TON co-founder Siri Carpenter the story behind her book.

 

What made you want to write a book about the science of exercise recovery?

A few years back, when I was still a contributing editor at Runner’s World, I got really interested in this idea of drinking beer after running, which a lot of runners like to do, including me. I started thinking, is this a good idea? A nice beer after a run is so refreshing, but could the alcohol be wrecking our recovery?

So I talked Runner’s World into commissioning a study to look at this, and it was so much fun. I was involved at every step—I got to help plan the study, I was a participant in it, and when it was done, I wrote about it. But the experience really opened my eyes to some of the problems that can arise when doing these kinds of studies.

How so?

One of the things I learned in doing that study—and this is chapter 1 of my book—was [that] from the very get-go you have the problem of definitions. Specifically, what is recovery? Athletes know it’s important. It’s a fundamental part of training. It’s when all these important adaptations happen that make you faster, stronger, all of that. But what’s actually happening, and what are the important components, and how do you measure it, and how is it applicable to the larger world? Those questions really got me thinking.

You’re a former elite-level runner, cyclist, and skier yourself. How did your athletic experiences play into your decisions about how to approach reporting for this book?

You know, looking back on my athletic career, I feel like recovery was the thing that I never managed to get quite right. I realize now that it was the limiting factor for me. And even though I’m not an elite or serious athlete at this point in my life, I still do all of these same activities. I think most athletes, as we’re getting older, we have this sense of “Oh no! What’s happening?” Suddenly recovery becomes so much more important. And so that raised my natural curiosity about the topic.

The book gets into a wide range of recovery methods, and I can imagine that there are a lot more that you could have included. How did you choose which methods to discuss?

Oh, that was so hard. I mean, there are literally thousands of things that are marketed and promoted for recovery—a lot of these are variations on the same theme. There are things that promise to flush your blood or clear lactic acid. There are all kinds of massage tools. There are recovery drinks. There’s an almost endless array of nutritional products and supplements. What I ended up doing was putting things into bins and, instead of trying to be absolutely comprehensive, I tried to just cover all of the main areas that people were trying to address.

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Were there some noteworthy ones that you decided specifically not to include for any particular reason?

There were some things that were just so obviously ridiculous that they didn’t feel worth debunking, like oxygen inhalers and crystals.

And I have a whole chapter about supplements. But I didn’t go into every single one because the issues that applied to one generally applied to all the others too.

You tried a lot of different recovery tricks yourself as part of your research—from cryotherapy, to an infrared sauna, to compression tights (which was a hilarious scene). Were there any that you were flat-out unwilling to try?

Yes. There are these places that I think of as recovery spas, where they have all the high-tech gadgets and things that you can do. One of these that I went to actually had a side business on site where you could pay money to get vitamins and supplements injected into your blood through an IV. I was like, no way am I doing this. My research had found that these weren’t going to be helpful, and it seemed risky to do an injection. They were really pushing me to try it and I was like, “No thank you.”

The recovery method that’s most strongly supported in your book, I think, is the idea of just getting enough sleep. Did you worry about how to reinforce standard ideas like that about health and recovery, and how to hold readers’ attention while you were doing that?

Oh, absolutely. That was the crux. How do I write this book that says there are ten thousand things that don’t work or don’t work as well as they’re purported to, and make it interesting? Especially since the things that really do work are things that people already know, but they’re not doing.

I mean, it’s sort of like writing about nutrition: All the sexy stuff isn’t really supported by the science. And in the end you’re left saying, “There’s no magic. Get good sleep and eat your vegetables and do the things your grandmother told you to. The thing that works is this thing—sleep—that you already know about, though you’re probably not doing it very well.” Everyone wants the magic secret and the secret is, there is no secret. That was the thing that made this book super difficult to write. How do you sustain interest around that message?

How did you resolve that problem?

That’s a good question. I don’t know for sure whether I succeeded. But one thing I did was to find some really great characters and stories that I hope sustained the narrative. For instance, I knew that I was going to have a chapter about overtraining, and so I looked for some compelling stories about athletes who’d struggled with that. On paper, it might seem easy to avoid training too much, but the real stories of athletes who’d been through this explained better than I could how this happens and why it’s such a common problem among athletes of all ability levels.

I also tried to ground the book in this obsession of mine about the scientific method and how science is used for marketing purposes. I wanted to show that it’s not just that there are a bunch of charlatans out there. It’s also that recovery is just a really tricky problem to solve. There are really well-meaning researchers who are trying very hard to do good research on the subject. In fact, I really came away from writing this book feeling a lot of respect for scientists who are working in this field, because recovery is an extremely difficult nut to crack.

Why is it so difficult?

One of the issues is that in sport science, a tiny difference in performance—a 2 or 3 percent difference—could be huge. That could be the difference between a gold medal and an also-ran. But those kinds of differences can be really difficult to measure.

You also have a lot of noise in the signal because a lot of these things that they’re measuring, like running times or heart rate, have a lot of natural variability within them, so you have to wonder whether you’re measuring a real signal, or is this just a bunch of noise?

Then, if you want to study elite athletes, it may be really difficult to recruit subjects. They’re already on their training programs. If you want to ask them to disrupt that for your study, you’d better have a good reason.

So it’s a really challenging field.

Some of the athletes that you interviewed are believers in recovery methods that don’t end up standing up to scientific scrutiny. For example, I’m thinking of your chapter on supplements, where you talked with an athlete with an extremely elaborate supplement regimen. How did you approach talking with her?

Yeah, that was really tricky. I’d been interviewing this really incredible athlete and learned that she had a supplement regimen that just seemed way, way over the top. I asked her to show me all the products she was taking, and she did this willingly. She was very up front about it, and she also was very adamant that supplements could not stand in for good nutritional habits. She didn’t make any grand claims.

But she was getting the stuff through a multi-level marketing company. And although she was selling it, I didn’t see any evidence that she was really pushing it or scamming people. She was one of the nicest people I interviewed for the book, and I really liked her. If anything, she seemed like someone who had fallen prey to the idea that everyone is taking supplements and it’s what you have to do to become a winner. She was not making claims that this stuff was like the thing that was making her a champion.

What struck me about that passage was that it wasn’t about showing her to be either a villain or a sucker. It seemed like you had a deeper message.

What I was really trying to show with that story was just how pervasive the fear of missing out is. The marketing has convinced so many people that using these products is what it takes to be an athlete at that level. The makers of some of these products are important sponsors of many sports, so it’s hard for athletes to question the claims or to say “I’m not going to use this product,” because that’s where the sponsorship money is coming from.

That brings me to something else I was going to ask you. What do you feel your book reveals about the nature of sport or the nature of elite athletics?

One thing that I hope comes through is the extent to which science (and pseudoscience) is used as a marketing tool—not just for selling products but for selling experts and for selling ideas. Very often, science isn’t being used in a noble pursuit of truth, but to sell something or provide a veneer of truth to an unproven idea.

What was most challenging for you about the process of reporting and writing this book?

The most difficult part about reporting it was that in the beginning, I didn’t really know what I was writing yet and I had no idea how I was going to put the book together. Early on, I would have interviews with people who I knew were relevant to the book, but I didn’t quite know what to ask them or what kinds of scenes I was looking for, or what were the points that I was trying to illustrate, because I was still feeling my way around this universe. There were a lot of times when I was just sort of lunging around in the dark—like, I think there’s an elephant in here, but I’m not sure, and I don’t even have my hands on the creature yet.

 

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What do you think helped you start to understand what you were going to be centering on?

Deadline panic? In all seriousness, I spent about a year researching it and about six months, or maybe a little bit longer, writing it. I wrote this book while working at my job at FiveThirtyEight, which I do not recommend doing. Writing a book “on the side” is probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I did take a three-month book leave, but it was not nearly enough time and my leave started at a time when I had some stressful, unexpected events going on in my life. It was a very painful few months where I just didn’t know where to begin. I spent a lot of time not writing. A lot of time not knowing what I was doing. At the same time, I knew that this was part of my process and so I never lost faith that I was going to figure it out. I think there’s an essential part of the creative process where you’re sitting in your hole and realizing that you’ve dug yourself in and you know there’s a way out. It’s not apparent yet, but you just have to have faith that it exists. It’s almost like you have to wait for it to become so uncomfortable that you say, “Okay, I just … I can’t stand it anymore. I have to figure it out.”

Is there anything that surprised you in the process of doing this book?

I think the biggest surprise, for me, was—and I feel like such a jerk even saying this—I really thought this was going to be an easy book to write. I still laugh at myself for thinking that, because it was not easy at all.

Why did you think it would be easy?

I thought it was going to be easy because the topic seemed so straightforward. Right away I could think of like 12 chapters. It just felt very uncomplicated, and it wasn’t until I was really deep into it that I realized that it was going to be really hard to do this because there’s no natural narrative here. I didn’t have a natural journey, and I absolutely did not want to put myself in the center and use myself as the main character. There are scenes where I’m guinea-pigging things, but those aren’t the bulk of the book, and that’s not the narrative in general. There wasn’t a character who goes from start to finish. I’m the only character who’s in the entire book, and I don’t think I even appear in every chapter. So that was really tricky—how do I create some kind of narrative drive? What I ended up doing was trying to center the story around some general themes and takeaway messages that fell out of my reporting, like that we’ve made recovery much more complicated than it needs to be and it’s OK to just relax and not worry so much.

You’ve led a number of professional workshops for science journalists over the years, and I wondered if there were any lessons that you learned in the process of writing this book that you would include in a future workshop if you were ever to run one?

Oh, that’s a really good question. Yeah, I learned a lot about the process of writing a book, which is so much different that writing even a long article. I’ve done a lot of long magazine narratives in my career, but this is just a different beast. And it can become so unwieldy. Organizing the reporting was really challenging. I would’ve loved to have gone to a workshop on that before I wrote my book.

Also, figuring out that there’s a different kind of pacing and a different kind of arc in a book than in a magazine story. In my first draft, one of the comments I got from my editor, Matt Weiland (who I adore), was that my format was really nice but all the chapters followed a very similar pattern, where it began with an anecdote that then went to a nut graf, and then went out from there. It was very magazine-like, and as I recall he said that this is a common mistake among magazine writers. He said there’s nothing wrong with this format, but if every chapter follows the same structure, it’s like a poem where every line rhymes and it could just be too much.

Courtesy of Christie Aschwanden

Also, the chapters have to connect so they don’t feel like a bunch of articles smushed together and they need to have the right pacing, which is much different than a magazine narrative. In a book you have more space to develop ideas. You can be a little bit more sprawling in descriptions and in scenes, but at the same time it still needs to be really tight, so you’re not just taking people on these long asides. It does need to come together in a cohesive way, and that was really challenging.

And speaking of recovery, how are you going to recover from writing this book? What’s next for you? Will beer be involved?

There will definitely be beer involved! (And wine—my husband is a winemaker.) I’m also going to take some time off. I had a wonderful little respite after the book was totally finished, but before it was time to work on publicizing it, and it was bliss. The work day would end, and I would have the whole evening to relax with nothing hanging over my head. Weekends were all mine. I’d forgotten what that felt like. In May, I took an actual vacation (spent mostly soaking in hot springs and reading novels). Once my book tour’s over I’m going to spend time relaxing (and recreating) at home. I’ve got a stack of books and am enjoying finally having time again to read for pleasure. I’m hoping to put more miles on my mountain bike this year.

 

 

Siri Carpenter is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Open Notebook and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Follow her on Twitter @siricarpenter.

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