In 2009, Christopher McDougall published Born to Run, a book claiming that running barefoot was the silver bullet solution to prevent running-related foot injuries. During his press tour for the book, McDougall just-so happened to be recovering from a foot injury he'd sustained while running... barefoot. Despite this, Born to Run isn't totally useless, but it shows the obvious pitfall of doing a sports science experiment with one subject — it's not a science experiment at all, but a What I've Learned Along the Way-style travelogue that sometimes unintentionally disproves your point, as McDougall's foot did.
Sportswriter Christie Aschwanden’s Good to Go, released in February, is chock full of similar one-woman experiments, with one key difference: They’re just there for narrative purposes, and her takeaways from the products and processes she tests are based on actual studies. The result is a classic that illuminates how the mega-industries aimed at selling pills, products, and techniques to casual and serious athletes are almost entirely fraudulent.
The premise of Good to Go is investigating what works and what doesn’t for athletes at every level — from, like, me to your average NBA professional — trying to recover from exercise. The idea of a massive industry existing to ameliorate the pains of having worked out sounds like the setup for a hacky standup — wouldn’t it just be easier to exercise less? But the basic idea behind working out, whether building endurance or muscle or skill, is that improvements don’t take place while you’re actually working out; they happen between sessions, as your body is adjusting to all the stress you’ve put it through. If this weren’t the case, then you could get better at sports by playing them for 12 or 16 hours a day, which doesn’t work.
Teach a man that Tom Brady’s infrared pajamas don’t make you better at sports, and he can make fun of Tom Brady, a perfectly noble thing. But teach a man why TB12’s IRPJ’s don’t work, and he’ll never get suckered by athletic quack science again. Last year, Aschwanden and Mai Nguyen wrote a piece for FiveThirtyEight titled “How Shoddy Statistics Found A Home In Sports Research,” in which they laid out how the powers that be in sports science — who are often in bed with traditional science companies desperate for good marketing — decided to deviate from the strict statistical and experimental techniques required in other scientific disciplines.
“Magnitude-based inference” essentially allows scientists to more easily declare evidence of an effect, something that Aschwanden discovered herself when she ran a seemingly legitimate experiment on the effects of beer on post-run recovery Her experiment — which met publication requirements for statistical significance — could have been fairly written up as “Beer boosts running performance in women!” Her data found that women were performing better on a treadmill test the day after drinking beer, while men were performing worse. Newsworthy, right? Except for that it doesn’t make a lick of sense, and a close examination of the experiment showed that the standard methods it used were deeply flawed. For example, runners’ performance on the treadmill test seemed to depend on if they were told how well other people performed, and their placebo was not remotely deceptive. Those aren’t violations of norms in exercise science, either; they are the norms.
The first half or so of the book is a thrilling massacre of the sacred cows familiar to anyone who’s done anything remotely athletic in the last 30 years. Sports drinks? Useless. Hydration in general? Doesn’t improve performance, and unlike dehydration, has led to multiple deaths in marathons. Icing? Bullshit, and possibly bad for you. Stretching? So thoroughly debunked that it doesn’t even merit its own section, just a few throwaway paragraphs late in the book. Fitbits, cupping, wine baths, infrared pajamas, chocolate milk, meal timing, foam rolling, massage, bodybuilding supplements, cryotherapy, compression tights, basically anything you see a professional athlete hawking on Instagram — Aschwanden tries them all on herself, digs deep into the scientific literature, and finds that none of them make a provable difference to athletic performance.
The major disappointment of the book is that the only mention of performance-enhancing drugs is about tainted supplements inadvertently triggering positive doping tests. Aschwanden did a lot of ridiculous things in the sacred name of stunt journalism for this book, but doping was not one of them. It’s certainly unfair to ask that any writer do risky or illegal things for the sake of journalism, but the big story of nearly every professional sport in the world is that elite athletes are elongating their careers to unprecedented lengths and bouncing back faster than ever from severe injuries. In some cases, that is down to improvements in training methods, surgeries, equipment, playing surfaces, and diet. But infrared pajamas, wine baths, and chocolate milk don’t tell the whole story.
There is one exception to all this debunking: Aschwanden steps into a float tank, and loves it. The tank itself doesn’t have any magical properties, but it’s essentially forced meditation for the non-meditator — a legitimate mental benefit, if nothing else. Good to Go was published before NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that the professionals in his league were “truly unhappy,” and it’s likely that teams’ various attempts to solve this problem will dominate the next wave of mundane lifestyle stories about pro sports. In this case, though, there’s legitimate science behind it. The suite of studies on the effect stress has on recovery and performance combined with Aschwanden’s own frustrating career as a professional athlete leads her to conclude that stress reduction is the single most important component of recovery. And what’s more, high-tech recovery can do the opposite of what it’s intended to do. If you’re driving to a hyberbaric chamber or obsessing over consuming the perfect carb-to-protein ratio within exactly 60 minutes of working out, as she puts it, “Instead of winding down, you’re essentially extending the work day,” and therefore adding a stress load.
An old boss and current college track coach told me a few months ago that his job in 2019 meant dealing with his athletes’ stress and anxiety was a higher priority than their shin splints and stress fractures. Move some causation around, and you’ve basically got the thesis of Good to Go — that the primary inhibitor of recovery is stress, no matter the source, and the best way to recover is to relax. (And being that the ultimate state of relaxation is sleep, Good to Go contains a nice quick tour of the science reminding us that sleep actually achieves the gains in recovery and performance that a million products put together couldn’t.)
The heuristic that I took away from Good to Go is that any recovery method that requires doing something is inferior to one that requires doing nothing. The implications of this are profound. Sitting on your ass outperforms nearly all of the products and techniques of a billion dollar industry — what does the demand for and the creation of that nearly worthless industry say about How We Live Today? Save a few paragraphs here and there about the dangers of FOMO, Aschwanden answers that with a blessedly light touch, which is an enormous relief, and perhaps characteristic of what she learned while researching the book. Not only is doing a ton of shit to recover ridiculous, it doesn’t work. To do more, do less.