Do You Need to Work to Recover From an Injury?

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Christie Aschwanden opens her new book, “Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery,” with the fact that the word “recovery” has gone from a noun to a verb. I was floored. It so perfectly captured not only what has been pitched to me for years as all the ways that runners can actively make their bodies heal from long workouts, but also the unsolicited advice I’ve been getting on how to help my stress fracture heal faster.

I recently chatted with Ms. Aschwanden about the meaning of recovery, the placebo effect, compression socks, and the weirdest thing she did while researching her book. Who ever thought someone would try to turn the pain of stepping on a Lego brick into a form of recovery? Answers have been lightly edited.

JAM: How did the word “recovery” become a verb?

CA: I was a pretty serious elite athlete back in the ’90s and early 2000s. Then, recovery was the state of being that you hoped to attain. Now it’s something that people feel like they have to actively do. We’ve let go of this idea that we just wait for recovery. It’s no longer the waiting period between workouts. There’s a sense that if you’re waiting, you’re not trying hard enough.

Underlying all of this is the idea that there’s this optimal you waiting to come out, and there’s one weird trick to be that way. This whole recovery industry really capitalizes on that.

JAM: I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions on how I can make my stress fracture heal faster when I’m pretty sure the thing it needs most is rest.

CA: There’s an unwillingness to accept that some of this stuff takes time, and some of this is stuff that can’t necessarily be expedited. It’s like taking a cold remedy. By the time that you take it, you’ve hit the maximum, most miserableness of that cold. You’re not going to get any worse, but something seems like it makes you feel better when it’s really just the natural course of things that’s making you well. So many of these recovery modalities I looked into were very much like that.

JAM: You make a case that the placebo effect isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

CA: I like to think of this as the “expectation effect.” If you expect to feel less sore, then you probably will feel less sore. I think that we too often dismiss placebo as being all in your head, but your head is an important part of your body, and your perceptions are an important part of how these things feel. If you are doing something and you expect it to make you feel more recovered, you probably will. And that’s O.K. in most cases, as long as you’re not throwing away tons of money on it.

JAM: Right. I often wear compression socks when I run even if I don’t think they necessarily help my muscles — but they feel good. And I think they look good, too!

CA: I also wear compression socks when I’m traveling, and they just feel good. I’m a science writer by training and I’m all about data. But one of the realizations I’ve had working on this book is that feeling good is a really important part of something working for you.

JAM: What do you use to recover?

CA: Sleep is the most powerful recovery tool known to science. I’m a night owl, and I don’t get up before I’m done sleeping.

JAM: What’s the weirdest thing you came across in your research?

CA: I tried these foot beds, which were little slippers that were marketed for recovery. The arch had a Lego-size piece that was motorized, so every minute or every 30 seconds, this little Lego-shaped bit would push on your foot. It was supposed to increase blood flow. I had this moment when the makers were showing this to me and I thought, “Am I being punked here?” I did try them. They were, I guess, a little bit pleasant. It was just kind of weird, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t help recovery at all.

Tell us what recovery strategies work for you. I’m on Twitter @byjenamiller.

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Run Well!

— Jen

Jen A. Miller is the author of “Running: A Love Story.

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