July 13, 2021 — Maybe it was Tom Brady’s infrared pajamas, but for a lot of sports fans and weekend-warrior athletes, the moment when “recovery” science reached head-scratching heights came with an Instagram post from Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire. He was soaking in a tub of red wine. The caption partly read, “Recovery Day! Red Wine Bath!! #Kinging.”
But everyday runners, weightlifters, and other recreational athletes looking to elite ranks for recovery tips might do better with a little pocket-protecting skepticism. In the emerging art and science of exercise recovery, the sophisticated marketing techniques of a multibillion-dollar industry can leave you wondering: Will this really help me recover from workouts?
Could it give me a performance edge? Maybe prevent injury? In short: Maybe — but it depends.
Why Recovery Matters
In an earlier age, we were advised to exercise and eat well to achieve physical fitness, adjusting effort to reach certain goals.
But now, from the worlds of elite athletes, science, and marketing, the suggestions keep growing, often without reaching the level of blanket recommendation. That is, while one thing might help some people, it probably hasn’t been proven to be effective across the board.
The process of recovery is important for active people because it lets your body rebuild itself after the stress of exercise and helps prevent injuries. It helps us avoid dangerous overtraining. Some studies link factors such as sleep with performance levels.
“The recovery period is crucial to maximizing the healthy changes your body goes through in response to a workout,” according to The Mayo Clinic.
Proper recovery also helps make you stronger and faster.
“If the rate of recovery is appropriate, higher training volumes and intensities are possible without the detrimental effects of overtraining,” says Lance C. Dalleck with the American Council on Exercise.
From Water to Red Wine Baths
Here’s a range of products and services, ranging from “sounds logical” to “Oh, really?”
Hydration. We need water after exercise. But drinking too much water can be dangerous, although you’d have to go to extreme lengths to get there. Does this mean we need to guzzle Gatorade after every workout? Absolutely not.
Sleep. Professional athletes started talking about their sleep schedules a few years ago, proudly dedicating time to serious slumber along with training. Despite what you might’ve been told in high school PE, getting up early to train an extra hour might not be the best idea.
Warming up, stretching, and cooling down. Before and after exercise, attention to your muscles can improve mobility and decrease delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.
Rest days. These can include “active rest” like yoga or light training.
Eating properly. Our bodies get most of the nutrients they need from a healthy diet, rendering most supplements unnecessary for most people. Pay attention to the levels of macronutrients you’re getting. (That means grams of fat, carbohydrates, and protein.) Avoid processed foods and sugar, which can contribute to muscle weakness and decreased cardiovascular endurance.
Foam rolling and massage. Some trainers and athletes swear these techniques help relieve DOMS and improve blood flow. The science is less clear. If it makes you feel good and doesn’t hurt more than your wallet, then it’s up to you.
Cold therapy. This means exposing your body briefly to super-cold temperatures or immersing your body in cold water. It can relieve inflammation, but inflammation is a part of your body’s natural healing, and some experts say we generally shouldn’t interrupt it.
Compression garments. Some people swear by them, and some claim they can improve blood flow deeper into muscles.
Red wine bath. See top of this story.
Infrared sleepwear. Tom Brady might be the NFL’s greatest quarterback ever, even now into his 40s. So, naturally, millions of people wonder what tips they can pick up from him. The GOAT’s website says, “This multi-tasking recovery apparel is infused with minerals that return infrared energy to your body and restore muscles faster.” The long-sleeve top goes for $90 for men.
How to Tell What’s What
Journalist Christie Aschwanden takes a skeptical approach to many such claims in her book, “Good To Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.”
She says consumers should focus on the basics of self-care and be aware of the marketing that links celebrity privilege and corporate-driven research. If someone is recommending a product or service — and will make money from it — then that’s a clue. And that can be said for everything from protein bars on up.
“People are looking for some magical trick that will make their lives perfect, and marketers are ready [to] capitalize on that and sell us the stuff that will make our lives better or our athletic performance better,” she says. “Most of them are a waste of money.”
“Sleep is the No. 1 thing you can do to improve your recovery from exercise and athletic pursuits. But it’s not something that most people tend to prioritize.”
We don’t need protein powder, supplements, or sugary sports drinks claiming to offer “electrolytes,” which are just salts found in a healthy diet, she says.
There’s No ‘Magic Pill’
Dalleck, who is also a professor of Exercise and Sport Science at Western Colorado University, , proposed “purposeful trial and error.” The former college runner suggests each person needs to “find out what works for you” as far as rest and recovery go.
Experts also advocate stress management, progressive training, vigilance about overtraining, and planned relaxation, such as meditation or daily quiet time.
“Stress is everything,” says Brett Rosenberg, MD, an Atlanta orthopedic surgeon and sports physician. “Stress and anxiety really debilitate people, and any way to counter that is fantastic for people who have pain due to anxiety or stress.”
So, while some might doubt the recovery power of, say, massage, Rosenberg says the healing human touch can alleviate pain and make people feel better. Whether it truly improves performance might not matter so much.
Jonathan Gelber, MD, a sports doctor, says he advises athlete-patients to “train smarter, not harder.”
To avoid overtraining — which can come when we work out too much without allowing recovery time — Gelber recommends having another hobby outside of sports. And keep a training log you can refer to as a document of your progressive training, for those days when you feel like you’re not doing enough.
If you find a tactic — say, cryogenics or cupping, which was popularized by Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps — that makes you feel better or gives you a psychological edge, then spend your money.
But for most people, he advocates rest, hydration, eating properly, and “listening to your body and not your ego.”
“If you can afford a bathtub full of red wine and you think that makes you a better professional athlete, then it’s probably a solid investment. But you do definitely scratch your head at some of these things,” Gelber says. “If there was a magic pill, we’d all be taking it.”