Book Review: Good to Go by Christie Aschwanden

Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery by Christie Aschwanden is one of the best sports science books I've read so far. In this book, Aschwanden investigates the science behind almost every kind of recovery method, from nutrition, sleep, icing, massage, stretching, meditation, to infrared saunas. This book is very well-researched and well-written. It's also easy-to-read and entertaining. Here is what I learned from this book:

In the first chapter, Aschwanden talks about the reality of scientific research, and how you must always take scientific sports claims with a grain of salt. This is because a sports science study may be flawed in many ways. For one, a study may have a small sample size that isn't representative of the normal population. Second, a study may not have a good control group, which can open the door for the placebo effect. Third, a study may not even be measuring something that is relevant for normal athletes. Lastly, some researchers are too biased and may try to manufacture the results that they want. Furthermore, even if a study is done correctly, it is only one piece of the puzzle. In order to gain more trust in a conclusion, it needs to be replicated multiple times and studied from multiple angles to answer different questions. So the next time you read a scientific claim about sports, think critically and ask yourself if their research methods actually make sense.

After teaching you how to think critically about scientific research, Aschwanden dives into the science of all kinds of recovery methods, where she answers the questions, "Does this really work?" and "How can athletes actually recover their bodies best?"

The first topic she explores is hydration. In this chapter, she debunks the idea that athletes need sports drinks in order to perform their best in games and recover after games. She talks to scientists who say that for the most part, your normal diet throughout the day provides you with enough electrolytes and carbs to perform well in games. In other words, you don't really need to drink extra electrolytes in the form of Gatorade. Aschwanden mentions that most of what we think we need to eat, drink, and do as athletes is pushed on us by marketers. For example, for their own interest, sports drink companies tell us that we need to drink liquids before we are even thirsty. However, Aschwanden learns that this is not actually true. Drinking only when you're thirsty has been shown to affect performance in no negative way at all. In fact, over-drinking is often more of an issue than under-drinking. If athletes drink too much water, they can reach a level of "water intoxication" that can potentially lead to brain damage and even death. People don't realize that our bodies are very good at conserving water. When we're sweating a lot in games, our body maintains equilibrium by drawing out water from our kidneys. So when you think you may be dehydrated, you're most likely not. If you wait until you're thirsty before you drink, you'll be fine. In fact, by drinking less, it can be argued that you're improving your performance by making your body lighter, and therefore faster and easier to move. Lastly, it is a myth that dehydration is the main cause of heat exhaustion. While dehydration does have some effect on body temperature, heat exhaustion is mainly caused by over-exerting yourself in high temperatures.

Next, Aschwanden debunks the common idea that athletes need to eat right away after exercising in order to recover fully. This short "metabolic window of opportunity" doesn't actually exist. It turns out that athletes don't have to refuel their bodies right away. Even if you wait a few hours after exercising to eat, your body will fully recover it's glycogen stores and repair damaged muscles. Plus, the food that you eat before and during exercise also contributes to your recovery. Unless you are exercising again during the same day, you don't need to worry so much about eating immediately after a game or a workout. Also, Aschwanden points to studies that show that athletic performance and recovery don't necessarily require a strict diet. As she points out, our bodies are highly adaptable machines that can make the most out of what we eat. As long as we eat a moderately healthy and balanced diet, our performance and recovery will be fine.

Perhaps the biggest recovery myth debunked in this book is icing. Icing is something we've been told works for our entire lives, but rarely do we ever question why we do it. If you think logically and do your research, you'll learn that icing actually does the opposite of what it's supposed to do. Instead of making injuries and sore muscles recover faster, it delays the body's natural recovery mechanisms. We're told that icing helps because it reduces inflammation, but inflammation is how our bodies naturally recover. Instead of reducing inflammation, we should be allowing our body to heal naturally while encouraging blood flow. However, icing does have the benefit of temporary pain relief. While icing may not help you recover and strengthen your muscles in the long run, it can improve your performance in the short term if you use it to numb pain, and therefore tolerate more pain in games. Although many athletes are convinced that icing helps, Aschwanden points out that the perceived benefits of icing may be due to the placebo effect. Athletes may think icing reduces soreness only because they expect it to reduce soreness.

In the next chapter, Aschwanden admits that it is true that increasing blood flow helps recovery. However, she questions whether recovery methods such as massage, compression boots, and saunas actually do anything to improve blood flow. She discovers that there is no clear evidence that any of these methods increase blood flow or help recovery in any substantial way. Like for most recovery methods and tools, the benefits of these things are largely due to the placebo effect. For example, people have the tendency to expect a massage to help recovery simply because it feels good and it seems like something is happening. But as Aschwanden points out, our bodies don't really need help circulating blood. Our bodies already do a good job circulating blood to where it's needed. This is especially true for young, healthy athletes. And in fact, the most proven way to increase blood flow is to exercise, which raises our heart rate and pumps blood out of our hearts faster. So if you really want to encourage blood flow, you can simply do some light exercises to help raise your heart rate.

The latest science is also starting to show that stretching may be overrated. While stretching can definitely improve flexibility, there's little evidence that it helps reduce soreness or prevent injuries. Aschwanden says that many athletes think stretching works because it is a ritual that gives them a sense of agency and control over their recovery.

Finally, Aschwanden teaches about some recovery methods that are actually reliable, namely mental recovery and sleep. In these chapters, you'll learn that psychological stress affects recovery just as much as physical stress. So in order to improve recovery, we need to find ways to relax, relieve stress, and improve our mental health. By coping with stress better and practicing things such as mindfulness and gratitude, we can recover both our minds and our bodies. In fact, the biggest benefit of massage may not be what it does to our muscles, but what it does to our minds. The relaxation that massage provides can help lower stress and improve recovery as a result. 

While mental recovery is important, the most important recovery tool by far is sleep! When we sleep, our bodies go into hyper repair mode, which helps our muscles recover and strengthen faster. Sleep also helps our motor skills become more ingrained into our subconscious. It doesn't matter how many other recovery tools you use, if you don't get enough sleep, you won't fully recover and improve. As athletes, we need to prioritize our sleep much more. However, while sleep is very important, this doesn't mean we should freak out if we don't get a good night of sleep before a game. Sleep, along with every other recovery method, is susceptible to the placebo effect. If we expect our lack of sleep to hurt us in games, it most likely will. Therefore, even after sleeping poorly, you need to be mentally tough and know that your body can adapt and perform well if you give your best effort. It helps to remember that one bad night of sleep won't drastically hurt your performance if you slept good during the previous nights. In other words, your average weekly sleep can be just as important as your most recent night of sleep.

Next, Aschwanden shows why dietary supplements, despite having little evidence to back their claims, are very popular among athletes. She says that many athletes have the fear of missing out. If they know that all their competitors are using a specific supplement, then they'll want to use it too in order to keep up with them. Also, when athletes are extremely driven, they want to chase every competitive advantage that they can find, and this can lead to wishful thinking. The idea of greatly improving your performance by simply taking a few supplements every day is very enticing for many athletes.

Perhaps the easiest way to recover is by not over-training in the first place. In this chapter, Aschwanden talks about the importance of avoiding over-training. But this doesn't just mean to train less, but also to train consistently. Many injuries are caused by "training load spikes," which means that a low intensity training period is followed by a high intensity training period. This happens most often when an athlete comes back from an injury and wants to quickly make up for their lost time. This type of training spike often leads to another injury since the athlete's body isn't used to training at that high of intensity or duration. This is why it's so important for athletes to prioritize rest and recovery and resist the obsessive, "no pain, no gain," mindset.

However, while most athletes are starting to realize the importance of rest and recover, they may not know when they should take it easy. How does an athlete measure recovery and know when they should train more or less? This is the question that Aschwanden answers in the next chapter. After studying all the new methods and technologies used to measure recovery, such as sleep trackers and blood tests, she determines that the best way to measure recovery is simply reading your body. Having an intuitive sense of how your body and mind feels is often the most accurate way to measure recovery. It's easy to know when you need to rest if you simply listen to your body. If you wake up feeling very sore and exhausted, you don't need a tracking device to tell you to take a day or two off.

One of the themes of this book is the placebo effect and how the benefits of recovery methods are largely in our heads. However, this doesn't mean there's no benefits of using tools such as foam rollers or ice baths. In this chapter, Aschwanden argues that if you think that your recovery methods work, then go ahead and use them. The belief that they work can actually make you feel better on game day, which will give you confidence. And as all athletes know, confidence is invaluable!

However, is gaining this confidence really worth spending hours every day working on your recovery? At what point does focusing on active recovery become a waste of time? Can obsessing about recovery backfire if it causes more stress in your life and leads to burnout? These are the questions that Aschwanden answers in the last chapter. She comes to the conclusion that perhaps the middle path is best. As an athlete, it's certainly smart to be somewhat proactive in your recovery, but for the most part, all you need to do is focus on the fundamentals and allow your body to naturally recover through good rest, relaxation, fun, sleep, and nutrition. When you take the middle path, you can gain some of the benefits of recovery tools (whether the benefits are real or in your head), and also save a lot of time to focus on your other priorities in life. In my opinion, this is the best way to go.

One of the biggest takeaways from this book is the importance of mental toughness. As Aschwanden points out, focusing too much on recovery tools can make athletes mentally weak. For example, if an athlete is worried that they didn't do enough recovery, they may give themselves an excuse to give up in games when things get tough. It doesn't matter how many recovery tools you use, if you're not mentally tough, you won't perform well in games. While being fully recovered is important, it is much more important to be mentally tough and give your best effort, even if your body is sore and tired. 95% of the time, it is not your body that limits you in games; it is your mind. Even if your body is sore, it is still capable of performing at a high level if you're willing to tolerate the pain and give your best effort. Again, this is why the middle path to recovery is best. By focusing on recovery enough, but not too much, you can save more of your mental and emotional energy for games, and this will lead to the best combination of peak performance and longevity.

This book is very thought-provoking, since it goes against most of the conventional wisdom we've been told as athletes. However, after reading this book, you shouldn't discard everything you've ever known about recovery. I noticed that Aschwanden herself may have been a little biased in this book. It's interesting how after talking about how you can't always trust scientific claims, she so easily mentions studies that support her arguments. While I believe in her overall premise that recovery methods are overrated, I'm skeptical of the idea that their benefits are entirely in your head. I'm sure there are people out there that can do a great job defending the benefits of recovery tools. I highly recommend reading this book, but I also encourage you to keep an open mind and continue doing your own research on recovery to determine what's best for you.