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Infrared PJs? CBD? Christie Ashwandan Touts the Science Behind Recovery
Sunday, January 24, 2021


Runners stopped stretching their hamstrings and took notice when a beer manufacturer began touting a new brew as a recovery ale full of nutrients and electrolytes.

That’s the kind of thing that makes Christie Ashwandan sit up and take notice, too. The former Nordic ski racer makes her living trying out the latest leg compression sleeves, vibrating fitness rollers and—yes—brewskis to see what helps athletes recover from a hard workout.

She’s detailed many of her findings in the New York Times bestseller “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.” And, recently, she shared some of findings with the DONS (Dudes on Nordic Skis) and Vamps at the invitation of her friend Muffy Ritz, whom she raced with on the Team Rossignol Nordic ski racing squad.

“This is a book I wish I’d had when I was younger,” Ritz said.

Recovery has become a verb—something you do or buy, Ashwandan told those taking part in the virtual discussion. And that encompasses everything from cupping to treat muscle pain and fatigue to body massage balls and E-stim, which uses mild electrical pulses to repair injured muscles.

The quality of evidence supporting the value of such products is low, she said.

Take Gatorade and other sports drinks.

You don’t need sports drinks to stay hydrated. But, once athletes saw Michael Jordan guzzling it, they all began guzzling it, she said. It didn’t matter if it worked. It had the all-important celebrity endorsement.

Gatorade got its start on a Florida football field in the mid-1960s, Ashwandan said. Players had been counseled not to drink anything close to a workout lest they upset their stomach.

But, when the coach complained his players were wilting in the heat, doctors concluded the athletes weren’t replenishing the fluids, salts or the carbohydrates they were burning for fuel.

A doctor mixed salt, sugar and lemon juice with water, creating a drink he dubbed Gatorade after the team’s nickname the Gators. It worked wonders, compared to the liquids they hadn’t been drinking. And when the team finished the season with a winning record, going on to win the Orange Bowl the next year, others took notice.

That jumpstarted a multi-million-dollar sports drink business with Gatorade touted as a cure for dehydration. Never mind that you could get the same effect with plain water or milk.

Just as you don’t need sports drinks for recovery, nor do you need to drink beyond thirst no matter how many charts you might have seen showing the vast quantities of water you supposedly need to drink, Ashwandan said.

There’s an idea you have to get hydration right, weighing yourself before and after a workout, she said.

“It turns out our bodies are really great at letting us know when we need hydration,” she added. “Your body is very well equipped to deal with losing fluids…If you’re peeing a lot, you’re probably overhydrating.”

Drinking excessive amounts of water when you’re not thirsty isn’t just dumb but it’s dangerous as it can produce a potentially fatal condition called hyponatremia or water intoxication, Ashwandan said.

“I haven’t found an instance of people who died of dehydration, but I have found several athletes who died from drinking too much. The solution to hydration is: Drink when you’re thirsty….Trust your body and learn to read it.”

Product manufacturers conduct small studies that produce the results they want and offer them as proof that their product works, Ashwandan said.

Ashwandan has pored over thousands of scientific papers looking for evidence to support the claims that she addresses in publications like “Runner’s World.” Exercise studies tend to be small so it’s hard to get good data.

Case in point: Her own beer study.  Noting how refreshing a beer is after a run, Ashwandan began wondering whether alcohol helped or hurt recovery. Her data could have been headlined “Beer boosts running performance in women” as she found that women performed better on a treadmill test the day after drinking beer while men performed worse.

The results could have elicited cheers from women and consternation from men, she said. But it was also a study that was deeply flawed and the results likely would not have been borne out in better constructed larger studies.

On behalf of her fellow athletes, Ashwandan has tried a variety of things at “recovery spas” that offer a variety of gizmos ranging from an IV to inject vitamins and supplements into someone’s blood to cryotherapy, which reduces a person’s body temperature supposedly sending supercharged blood outward as they get out of the chamber, improving healing or recovery.

“There’s absolutely no evidence this helps recovery.  It’s all bogus,” said Ashwandan. “But, it gives you a  huge adrenaline rush so I understand why some people might like it.

Ashwandan called Quarterback Tom Brady the king of pseudoscience for the many health products he hawks, including his Under Armour infrared PJs that allegedly capture heat and reflect it back onto the body to aid recovery.

“They’re just expensive pajamas,” Ashwandan said. “There’s nothing special about them. That said, if you feel like something helps you, there’s usually no harm in using it.”

Beware of products like SportLegs that claim to prime your muscles to make less lactic acid, Ashwandan said.

“Anytime you see claims about lactic acid it’s a red flag for bullshit. There was a time we thought lactic acid was bad and need to be cleared out, but the body actually clears it quite quickly on its own.”

There’s no reason for athletes to be taking supplements and the danger of a positive drug test is very real for athletes who take some of those things, she said. The jury is still out, she added, on the effects of CBD on recovery as there have not been enough good studies to show whether it helps or is a placebo for some people.

There’s an idea that there’s a magical recovery window of anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes during which athletes must ingest nutrients, Ashwandan said. It turned out that benefit wasn’t from the timing of nutrition but from getting the nutrition period. It turns out it’s better to have protein throughout the day—you don’t need it within a certain time after workout, she said.

Recreational athletes who ski or bike for an hour or two shouldn’t need to stop and refuel, Ashwandan said. Your body has what it needs to get through that. If you’re out there three hours or more you do need additional fuel.

Recovery at its basic is relaxation, Ashwandan said. And one thing that provided that for Ashwandan was indulging in a float spa in San Francisco where she floated effortlessly on water.

“There were all these pseudo-scientific explanations given to me. But, at the end of the day, it was all about relaxing for me,” she said.

It’s important to establish a daily relaxation ritual, Ashwandan suggested.

“There should be a time in your day—every day—where you have no expectation you have to be productive. In summer I like to sit on the front porch and watch the sunset.”

The best way to measure recovery is mood, she said. Being cranky, sleeping poorly, getting sick—they’re all signs that you are not recovering.

“Everybody wants a magic bullet…but it’s an individual thing. You need to pay attention to how you’re feeling.”

The No. 1 recovery tool by far is sleep, she said. “There is nothing, nothing, nothing that comes close to sleep. Sleep is something we all know we need to do but we have trouble prioritizing it. Make sleep something’s that’s non-negotiable.”

Similarly, manage stress, and take rest days.

“As you get older, it takes longer to bounce back,” she said. “Don’t beat yourself up about that.”




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