The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 208

Christie Aschwanden

Good to Go

 

How can we best relax and recover from stress? Christie Aschwanden is a science writer, former elite athlete, contributor to the New York Times, as well as the author of Good to Go: What The Athlete In All Of Us Can Learn From the Strange Science of Recovery. Discover the similarities between how athletes and business professionals travel, the importance of a daily relaxation ritual, and the surprising relaxation or healthy living to-dos you don’t have to do.

Photo by Cris Crisman

About

Get the book, Good to Go, from Amazon here:

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Website: Christieaschwanden.com
Bio:  Christie Aschwanden is an award-winning science journalist. She’s cohost of the podcast Emerging Form, a contributor to the New York Times, Washington Post, and Slate, and was previously lead science writer for FiveThirtyEight. A National Magazine Award finalist and former elite athlete, she lives in Colorado.

Transcript

This transcript is unedited.

 

Peter:

With us today is Christie Aschwanden. She is an award winning science journalist and a former elite athlete. She was a contributor to the New York times, Washington post slate. She was previously the lead science writer for five 38 and she wrote a book that is unusual for us to profile on this podcast and really excellent. And I really loved it. It’s called good to go. What the athlete in, all of us can learn from the strange science of recovery Christie, welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast.

 

Christie:

It’s so great to be here. Thanks for having me.

 

Peter:

The book. I thought it was great and I loved it as, as an athlete and as someone who works out and I also really loved it for leadership because it’s all about the science of recovery. Most of us, many of us push ourselves really, really hard and, and don’t recover. And then because of that, we try to find all these ways to recover that we’re hoping are gonna give us an edge. And and you know, you’ve done a lot of the research in terms of what gives us an edge and what doesn’t, and what’s kind of fake. So I want to talk about this from the perspective of an athlete and from the perspective of all of us, many of us who kind of push ourselves physically, and then also, you know, as leaders and people who are going, going, going, going, what really works in terms of recovery.

 

Christie:

Yeah, absolutely. And I just want to say it was so interesting when my book came out last year, beginning of last February, and I went on this very extensive book tour. I had like, I don’t know, close to 30 events and it was really nonstop. I felt like, you know, it actually reminded me a little bit of my days as an elite athlete where, you know, you’re never home and it’s another hotel room every weekend and all of that. But what I realized about, Oh, a few weeks, I guess, into this book tour, was that actually being a rider on book tour, or even just being a working professional who’s giving talks and having meetings is so similar to being an elite athlete in the sense that you’re performing and, you know, it’s cognitive performance. It may be, you know, there’s a physical component to, I guess when you’re giving talks and being present with people and whatnot, but in so many ways, all of the concepts and sort of ideas in my book really applied to the working professional as well. And I realized during my book tour that I was really putting into use all of these things that I had written about as an athlete here, I was doing those, you know, as this writer on tour and holding these events and, you know, travel is just such an extreme stress on the body. And, you know, I was able to manage it because I was focusing on this recovery aspect.

 

Peter:

Harvard business review asked me to write a travel focused article on a section that they were doing. And I, I basically wrote the same thing. I basically said, like when I was an athlete, when I was ski racing and I was doing I traveled like an athlete. I would go to bed early and I wouldn’t drink alcohol and I would eat healthy and I would do all these things to be in peak performance. And then when I started to think about how most of us travel with business, you’re out at late dinners with clients and you’re doing you wine, and you’re doing all of these things that are the opposite of what you do. And if as business people we traveled, like we did, when we were athletes or like athletes travel, we would probably be in a lot better shape. So I love the fact that that was an observation that you made also.

 

Christie:

Absolutely. And I, you know, so one of the things that really emerges from all the research that while I was researching this topic, there were sort of three ways that I went about it. One was, I just took a very deep dive into the scientific literature. I read something like a thousand research papers, you know, really it was reading journal articles up the wazoo and whatnot. Then I also interviewed coaches, athletes, trainers, all of these people, you know, who are working professionals in these fields from all of those different aspects to find out what they’re doing, what they like, what they think works. And then the third aspect of this was I would add and sort of Guinea pig, a lot of these things. And so it was really interesting putting all of those three things together, because there are many instances where I would notice that there was something where maybe the scientific literature was like, well, there really isn’t much evidence for this. And yet athletes really, really loved it. And then when I tried it, I realized, okay, I understand the reason here. And it may not be something that we can prove scientifically, and it may still be something that’s useful.

 

Peter:

So I love that. And let’s start with like, let, let me ask you a couple of questions to set, set the frame here. Why is it so hard for us to relax? Like why is it so hard for us to like, to even broach this issue of recovery or try to solve?

 

Christie:

I love that. That is such a great question to ask, because I feel like we are at this moment right now, where we face this sort of relentless pressure to always be productive. And there’s this sense of like, you, can’t just, you know, if you have a spare minute, you can’t just sit there with your own thoughts. You need to be on your phone, reading something or consuming something or planning or producing. And you know, here we are, as you and I are speaking right now, we’re at the sort of the beginning of this COVID-19 epidemic. And a lot of people are stuck at home and what not. And I’m seeing all these people tweeting or talking about, okay, so you have some spare time on your hands now is the time to write the great American novel or to do this thing. And, you know, it’s sort of like here we are, and that’s a really stressful time.

 

Christie:

And people aren’t saying, Oh, this is a time to like, spend some quality time with my family, or maybe read that novel that I’ve been wanting to read or, or like relax a little, or take up that hobby that I was wanting to do, you know, at home. No, no, we, we feel like we need to like produce something and we need to always be doing. And I think that always be doing things as a really, really toxic sort of undercurrent that’s pervading our culture right now. And I think a lot of what I talk about in the book and sort of where I’ve come to as both an athlete and, and, you know, working professional is that it’s really, really important to just have some time every day, that’s just downtime it’s and I hate that we’re at the point now that we have to do this, but, you know, I tell people, if you have to schedule it on your calendar, I don’t want you to have to, like, I want you to get to the point where you’re no longer having to schedule it work, just part of what you do.

 

Christie:

But it’s really, really important that there is time and every day that does not, there’s no pressure to be productive. There’s nothing that you feel like you need to accomplish. You can sit there and gaze at your navel. You can watch Netflix, you can do something really, you know, that does not feel meaningful. But the idea here is that you’re sort of like alone with yourself. And I think that we’ve sort of lost that part of being able to be alone and just sort of sit with ourselves. And I think that’s really, really important for creativity.

 

Peter:

Yeah. And I, and I, I think it’s the, the very fact that we have these never ending to do list it’s somehow we have so much to accomplish that makes doing nothing almost offensive to our sensibilities, right? Because it’s like you’re sitting here doing nothing like there’s dishes to be washed there’s, you know, articles to write there’s the novel, like, you know, like there was this, I’m a new Yorker cartoon. I remember where there was this man with his tie down and tired and, and, and, you know, had in his hands. And, and, and there was an older woman at the door and the, the, the article, the title was the number one motivator or the number one greatest motivational speaker. And it was obviously the older woman in this cartoon was his mother saying, please, before I die, make something of yourself. It’s like this, like drive to say, like, to prove our worth, to prove our value, to create, you know, something and in the face of not yet having achieved that. And by the way, those of us who have written books who have done all this stuff, still feel that pressure. Like, I, you know, like I’ve written four books I’ve contributed to 12 others, but I still feel like it’s very hard to just relax. That’s one of the things that really attracted me to your book was cause I, I, I put myself in that category of people who find it very, very hard to just do nothing for a period of time. Yeah.

 

Christie:

Yeah. And I used to really, really struggle with this. And it was interesting. One of the sort of upsides of writing this book is I really did have to learn to do this. I mean, it wasn’t just because I was testing all of these relaxation methods and whatnot, but I really found that as I was writing the book, my attitudes about these things really shifted. And I found myself sort of recognizing myself, you know, as I was writing about these problems that I was seeing of us, you know, never being able to relax. And, you know, the problem that I was seeing with all of these athletes now is that recovery has become a thing. You know, in the book I say, it’s become a verb instead of a now. And when I was an elite athlete, recovery was sort of the state of being that you hope to achieve with all the things that you were doing. It was relaxing. It was putting your feet up. Now recovery is like, Oh, you have to do this thing and do that thing and spend money and get people coming in and working on you and doing all these things. So that it’s sort of the absolute opposite of relaxing. So we’ve sort of turned it into something that, that is sort of its own source of problems.

 

Peter:

So I have a theory about that, and I’m kind of curious to get your perspective, which is people find it. I find this about myself. It’s easier to do something than it is to not do something. So it’s easier for me to make sure I get my workout in every day than it is to not eat the chocolate chip cookie. And, and I, sometimes when I’m speaking, I’ll ask people to raise their hands. Like how many of you find it easier to do something than not do something? How many of you feel it’s easier to refrain from doing something then? And usually it’s about an 80 20 perspective. Like there’s a lot more people who find it easier to add something to their list of activities. So they’re feeling like they’re accomplishing something then to resist the temptation, to do something. Have you found that also?

 

Christie:

Oh yeah. This is a very common bias. And in fact, this kind of connects to something else. I do a lot of writing about medicine and this is something we see in medicine a lot where we, we have a very deep discomfort with sort of waiting like watchful waiting. There’s a lot of circumstances now in medicine where the, you know, the best decision is to sort of wait and watch or to maybe not do something. But our impulse is always to do more and like, well, I really need to get the test or do this thing when in fact, you know, so often when you’re, when you feel healthy, you really are, and you don’t need to go and do other things to try and make yourself feel unhealthy or find things that are wrong with you.

 

Peter:

And in fact, sometimes when you’re doing those other things, you know, you get more tests that leads to more tests you’re in the hospital. You catch a bug, you had nothing wrong with you in the first place, but all of the stuff ended up creating both a lot of costs, but also possibly making you sicker in the process.

 

Christie:

Yeah. And I think that’s really emblematic of this problem that I uncovered writing the book, which was that, you know, we’ve turned to recovery and it’s no longer rest and relaxation. It’s this thing that you have to do. And there are products to buy and, you know, routines and rituals to follow. And you have to say here that I’m a huge fan of ritual, but I think the ritual needs to be some sort of relaxation ritual. And I’m often counseling people that one of the most important things that you can do is to have a daily relaxation, ritual, have something that you do every day. That’s part of your schedule. It’s something you don’t even have to put on your calendar or your agenda. You don’t need a phone alert because this is just a vital part of who you are, where you’re shaky. Yeah. But it’s a time

 

Peter:

Like 20 minutes of meditation, 20 minutes of just sitting and doing nothing take away.

 

Christie:

Exactly. And, you know, I think meditation’s great. But I also think that we have to be careful, like if meditation is not your thing, that’s okay. And it doesn’t have to be like, I feel like we have this bias towards wanting it to be something that feels bonafide or legitimate. So it’s like, okay, I’m meditating. And everyone knows that that’s good. Right. And it’s doing something. Whereas like, I think meditation is great, but if you want to just lie on the couch and like stare at the ceiling. Personally I live in a beautiful place. I like to sit on my front porch and watch the sun set on the San Juan mountains. Like, that’s great. I can do that. You know, there’s no, I don’t need an app for it. I don’t need, you know, someone telling me what to do. I don’t need to time it. I don’t, you know, it’s just, it’s just part of what I do.

 

Peter:

I don’t, I don’t want to be too forward, but I’d like to sit on your porch and watch the sunset over the San Juan mountains too. You know, like that actually it looks like a really a good one. Okay. So here’s what I want to do. I want to play game. I want to throw all sorts of recovery techniques at you. I know a little more about this game than listeners, probably because I’ve read your book already, but, but I want to throw a whole bunch of techniques at you and you just tell me, yeah, it helps or no, it doesn’t help. And I know that’s asking to be like totally black and white and you know, you can, you can offer some nuance if you think there’s nuance. But to the extent that you could, for the most part, like sort of say, take this off your list versus put it on and recognizing, and I’ll have one caveat recognizing, and you talk about this in the book that there’s a placebo effect. The doing anything can sometimes help because your mind thinks you’re doing something to recover. So let’s take that aside for one second. And then just say, you know, based on the technique itself, does it help you recover or are you better off letting it go? Okay, rollers, rollers, you know, the thing that kind of moves your fascia and like, you know, kind of is supposed to loosen up your muscles.

 

Christie:

Well, I tell people here is if it’s something people kind of fall into two camps, they either love this or hate it and like pick your poison. If this is something you love and you want to keep doing, go ahead and do it. If you hate it, don’t feel like you need to do it. We don’t have good, good evidence that it’s helpful,

 

Peter:

Not good evidence that it helps. But if you, if you, if you’re the person who really likes the pain of sitting on a really, really hard muscle,

 

Christie:

So this is one that’s really complicated, actually there’s some suggestive evidence and it depends a little bit on the circumstance and exactly what it is. You’re rolling. Some sorts of aches and pains seem to respond better to this than others. But I would say that in general, it’s not something that’s a must do. And it’s something that I tried. I hadn’t really gotten into this before I started working on the book. I tried it. It’s not something that I continue to do. I didn’t find it pleasant and it’s not something I enjoy doing, but I understand that people do find it pleasant and there some sort of neurological reasons why this may work. So I think that there is some suggestive evidence, but we just don’t have really good proof yet that it’s something that’s essential,

 

Peter:

Great taking vitamins every day.

 

Christie:

Absolutely. I don’t need to do it. No one should be taking any vitamins or supplements. Vitamin D vitamin D. No, no.

 

Peter:

I mean B12 for vegans.

 

Christie:

Okay. So there’s a couple of exceptions B12. If you’re vegan for women of menstrual age who are a particular with our training, harder at altitude, they may need an iron supplement, but this is something that you should actually do carefully because there is a genetic disorder that it’s not very common, but it exists where some people you know, absorb too much iron and they have problems. So that’s really something that you could a decision that you should make in conjunction with the doctor, having done blood tests to sort of be sure it’s not something that you can sort of guess about.

 

Peter:

Got it. And that there’s, there could be damaged, done by taking, by taking excessive vitamins. And what surprised me, what you wrote in the book is that like the standard American diet, which has very few fruits and vegetables in it, people are not deficient in any vitamins.

 

Christie:

I mean, all of our food is enrich. Like it’s very, it’s almost impossible to be eating, you know, particularly if you’re overeating, which a lot of Americans are, but also I’ve been the other thing. Let me tell you this. If you’re an athlete, you’re training hard. I mean, you are eating more calories than the average person you need to be. I mean, if you’re not, that’s actually a problem. That’s a topic for another day, but you’re eating enough calories. You’re not going to be vitamin deficient. And even with something like iron, you’re much better off getting that through food than a supplement, your body will absorb it better. It’s better utilized, etc. Great stretching. Nope. People get really angry about this one. And I think, yeah, this is something that’s very ritualized and people enjoy it. And so I don’t think it’s necessarily something that, you know, I’m not going to urge someone to stop if they really love it, but there’s just no good evidence that it helps with soreness or that it prevents injury, which is another thing that it’s often said to do.

 

Peter:

How about like warming up before exercise? Is that a smart thing? Like pre recovery is what they call it?

 

Christie:

Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a good idea to sort of ease into your workout. So you don’t, you know, start your, your workout with the first thing being a sprint, but this doesn’t have to be stretching. You know, it’s just sort of a less vigorous exercise. So maybe you start walking instead of running from the get, go

 

Peter:

Stretching after a workout is not important.

 

Christie:

Nope. I mean, it doesn’t really mean it’s, if you’re going to stretch, you’re better off doing it after because stretching cold muscles, you’re more likely, I mean, it is actually pretty easy to injure yourself stretching, right? Yeah.

 

Peter:

Your as part of your, like, like maybe for some people stretching is like watching the sunset set over the San Juan mountains, then you can do it because it relaxes you, but there’s no recovery reason to do it.

 

Christie:

No, there isn’t. And there’s actually some evidence that stretching might even impair performance on the short term. So right after you stretch your muscles, become a little tighter. I don’t want to miss miss describe this, but basically you have some performance detriments immediately following the stretching and it doesn’t last very long, but basically if you’re about to go out and do a sprint race or something, you don’t want to be stretching my beforehand. That seems pretty clear. Got it. Okay. So

 

Peter:

Does work, what do you know is useful for recovery and, and, you know, for recovery actually mentally as well as physical?

 

Christie:

Yeah. I mean the number one thing, and let’s just say here, nothing else comes even close. The number one thing is sleep, and this is something people kind of roll their eyes when I say this, because everyone knows that sleep’s important, but the problem is that no one gets it right. And I think the real key here and the key insight and the thing that you can do differently is to actually prioritize sleep. So sleep needs to be as important to you. And as sort of, you know, can not miss as your most important calendar event of any given week. You know, it’s something that you just can’t skimp on and people regularly skip on it. You know, it’s just something that we’re, we know we should do, but we don’t. And I think that the best thing that people can do is to really figure out a way to make it a priority and to schedule their lives around it instead of your right now, I think the inclination is for people to schedule their sleep around their life.

 

Christie:

But I think that, you know, you need to sort of do the opposite in the book. I tell an interesting story about a WNB 18 that actually made some pretty big changes and it resulted in some performance improvements and what they did, this was a team on the West coast, the Seattle storm. And what they did is they said, okay, we’re not going to have early morning flights. You know, when they go on the East coast and have to perform over there, they’re not going to get up early. They’re just going to stay in the same time zone. And instead of having an eight o’clock meeting coming from Seattle, now, we’re just, we’re going to let everyone sleep in until they’re ready. And it doesn’t really matter to us if that means that we’re getting up late in the new time zone. And I understand that as a working professional, you may not be able to do this, but there are other things that you can do. And, you know, things like personally, I have decided that I’m no longer going to take those really early morning flights. I’m not a morning person. I know that if I have to get up from one of those flights, you know, my sleep is disrupted, not just that, that night, but you know, for several nights after that and it’s just not worth it. And so I say, okay, I’m not going to do that. And making rules like that

 

Peter:

And people can do it. Like I know a lot, I’m a business traveler. I know a lot of business travelers and we could choose to fly in the night before and sleep over in the new place, as opposed to, you know, like we, we, people can make those choices. You, you really make a case. And I’m curious if you have any specific advice for being able to do this, to listen to our bodies. And I think we’re so disconnected from our bodies and our culture. That that’s a very hard thing actually for people to do.

 

Christie:

It really is. And I think the other thing that’s happened now is people have gotten so into data and like, look, I worked at five 38, I’m a data geek. I love data too. But the problem is if you’re looking to these devices or watches or whatever it is that you’re tracking to tell you something about yourself, you’re sort of losing sight with your own body’s physiology and what it’s telling you, you on how you feel, whether it’s fatigue, whether it’s stress, whatever it is, you’re feeling tells you so much more than any number on one of these trackers. And yet people have sort of delegated this really important task of figuring out how they’re doing. You know, how am I feeling? Do I need more sleep, et cetera, to data and data, aren’t the same as answers. And you need to be sure that you’re collecting the right information. You know, what does it really telling you? It turns out that the very best measure of recovery is actually mood and just how you’re feeling, you know? And I think we all sort of intuitively know this, like who among us does not get cranky and sort of, you know, fatigued and whatnot. When you’re sleep deprived, we know this and that’s your body telling you, like, Hey, I’m strung out. I need, you know, I’m overextended help.

 

Peter:

Yeah. And, and, and I, I it’s one of those things, like not getting enough rest that we tend to just push through. We tend to sort of say, I’ve got this commitment. I’m going to work out. I’m going to do this. And yeah. Even if I’m a little cranky or if I’m not feeling well or whatever, I want to keep going, because I don’t want to miss this.

 

Christie:

Yeah, exactly. And, you know, in the end, it turns out that, you know, if you’re pushing through to do a workout that you’re not prepared for, because you haven’t slept enough, you’re really to serve, digging yourself into a bigger hole. And I think there’s another thing that I sort of preach, which is a radical acceptance. So that’s just sort of like accepting the situation that you’re in and doing the best that you can within those beans, because we have a tendency to sort of pretend that things are different than they are. And you can’t, you know, you can’t guess like your physiology, right? Like if you’re really tired and you’re sleep deprived, you can’t mish that away. And yet too often, that’s what we do.

 

Peter:

Yeah. And, and it’s, and it’s like a little bit of letting go of this machismo of like superhuman. We could make everything happen. And I think when I hit 50, I started realizing that I was shifting from like this attempt to be superhuman to actually just becoming like super human, like more and more human than, than I’ve sort of thought I’ve been, because my body’s just not doing the stuff that it did when I was 20.

 

Christie:

Yeah. That’s really smart. And I think that this is someplace where leaders really have a role to play. Because I think when you’re a leader, you’re setting the culture for your organization and, you know, the basketball team I was telling you about those changes came from the coach, the coach down, she said, look asleep. It’s really important to me. I think it’s important to the team. And she set a culture that said, we value this, and we’re all going to prioritize this. And I think that, you know, if you’re running a company, you have an opportunity to, you know, set a high performance expectation culture for your business and that isn’t working all the time. I mean, the way to perform better is to set some boundaries.

 

Peter:

Yeah. I love that. And I think it’s unusual. Think a lot of leaders push themselves really, really hard. And, and so then actually ended up setting the running example. And you said something else in the book that I thought was super interesting, which is, you know, in a world, in which everybody is precisely using data driven decisions to time exactly how much they’re eating and when they’re eating and how they’re drinking and all this stuff you’re saying, actually we do not need to be so precise about our nutrition or hydration. The equations we use to optimize performance. It’s actually much easier and more flexible than that.

 

Christie:

The human body is super flexible. It’s capable of making do with, with a lot of sort of suboptimal situations. And that doesn’t mean that we should, you know, not try and, and provide it with a good environment and all of that, but we’re sort of putting our energy and our time and effort into, you know, working on things that don’t matter. And too often, this is done at the expense of the things that really do. So it’s like, you know, weighing out your food or something, and only getting six hours of sleep. Well, you know, the benefits you would get from more sleep far outweigh, like whether you’re eating this vegetable versus another one or that sort of thing.

 

Peter:

It’s great. I mean, one of the things that I really loved about this book and about our conversation is it’s, it’s a Testament. It reminds me about how easy it is to make easy things complicated. And in the end, it’s, you know, you’re giving a very simple message, which is, you know, eat, drink, sleep Rast, don’t overdo it all. Like, make sure you’re getting rest and sleep and everything else is sort of fungible and doesn’t have to be precise. And by the way, don’t track your sleep now to make sure that you’re getting super quality sleep because that actually draws away from relaxing sleep. And actually just disconnect yourself a little bit and stare at the ceiling for 20 minutes and fall asleep, reading a book. And, and don’t like, over-complicate, what’s actually like a very human and very simple process of an and, and an unavoidable necessity of letting ourselves recover from effort.

 

Christie:

I like that way of putting it. And I’ll just say, you know, a lot of the stuff, it seems really simple, like just relax more and sleep more and all this, but you, my book contains a lot of, I think really interesting and helpful advice from elite athletes. Who’ve sort of figured out the details because even though these are sort of basic things, they can take planning and they can take thought, so like figure out, okay, so I want to prioritize sleep, but what does that mean? What does that look like?

 

Peter:

I loved it. We’ve been speaking with Christie Aschwanden her book is good to go. What the athlete in, all of us can learn from the strange signs of recovery. I would add that a subtitle would also be what the leader in, all of us can learn from the strange science of recovery, how we treat ourselves, our bodies and the people who are part of our organizations and our teams is absolutely critical to how we lead. And so I, I loved it. I just found it a super interesting read to your great writer, Christie, and, you know, you, you kind of approach the science of this and a really intriguing and interesting way. So thank you for writing the book. Thank you for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.

 

Christie:

Thanks for having me.

 

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