Why recovery is the new holy grail of exercise, and alcohol isn’t your friend

Think non-stop training is the key to enhanced athletic performance? Think again. In our Q&A with Dr. Lutz Graumann – who sits on Baze’s science advisory board – he explains why recovery is the new watchword, and why that evening glass of wind-down wine is hampering your efforts more than you think…

Lutz Graumann, MD delivering a speech.

First things first. How did you get involved with Baze?

I’m a medical doctor and specialist in sports medicine, nutritional medicine, and chiropractics. I headed up the sports medicine department of the German military for more than ten years and covered all kinds of Olympic sports, the development of pro athletes, and worked with the special forces. A lot of my projects involved investigating what biomarkers were relevant for the vitality and performance of high achievers. I met Philipp Schulte, Baze’s CEO, during one of these projects when he was in the early days of setting up the company.

So how did you jump from science to sports?

I used to be a semi-professional athlete in my younger days, on a pro basketball team. Now as a healthcare professional I have this urge to experiment. If we have a new diagnostic, new strategy, new recommendation – I test it on myself.  I’m a living case study, the guinea pig in the family.

Basketball on court

That sounds…intriguing.

It’s the only way to understand what’s really going on. At one stage I worked on a project with a Formula 1 racing team. We took biometric data from a heart monitor and looked at correlations – from variables like foods we ate and recovery techniques we applied – to see if there was a way to predict future outcomes. That’s when I began using heart rate monitors, EKG devices and heart rate variability devices.

So what else have you road-tested on yourself?

At first, we tried things like power naps and meditation to see what effect they had. I then looked at performance enhancement techniques including the drug Modafinil – it’s a smart drug widely used for fighter pilots in the US military. There’s some off-label use by executives, and it’s also used by college students in times of high pressure – like writing a thesis, for example.

What effect did it have on you?

I took it after a long-haul flight and yes, I was able to continue working all night. In a major crisis, it could perhaps help your performance if you had to get stuff done, but it comes with a big drawback: it screws up your circadian rhythm substantially. Looking at the data, I was affected for the next 25-30 hours, so there’s absolutely no sign of recovery in your circadian rhythm for a sustained period.

So not a long-term way to enhance performance then…

Not at all. It has a very detrimental effect on your performance because of that lack of recovery. And that is the key here: recovery is the route to better performance. Alcohol was our next experiment, and it was even more eye-opening because it’s so much more widely consumed. So many high achievers and executives tell us that in the evening in order to wind down they have the occasional glass of wine or two…or a bottle.

Half-filled wine glass at a winery.

And what was the verdict?

While your body is still in detox from alcohol – so when you stop drinking and go to bed – there is no way to enter deep sleep. So the most important part of your sleep cycle is missing, which means physical restoration is not happening. And yes, I tested it on myself, with five beers – a lot for me – at a barbecue. Not only was my sleep disrupted because I had to keep getting up to pee, but I didn’t reach that deeper level of sleep, and it took my body another 12-16 hours the next day to go back to the natural rhythm.

That’s a very slow recovery.

It is. And when you consider recovery is the new holy grail in professional sports these days, you can see why there’s simply no room for alcohol.

The new holy grail?

Yes. I’ve spent my career looking into ways to enhance performance, and what everybody wants to know is: how often can we introduce the training stimulus? When can we throw the next exercises at the athlete? When we train or compete, our performance is on a high level at the start, and by the end, it’s depressed, and then recovery starts. We want to figure out a way to shorten the time from the depressed level of performance until we go back to normal, or even go back to a higher level of performance, also known as super-compensation.

Man stretching and resting.

Is there a temptation to cut recovery time short then?

Of course. But that’s not the route to better performance – recovery is everything, so our challenge is to find more effective routes to recovery. These days we know what training looks like and we have a clear understanding of how to interpret the biomarkers we track during training. We can see how fast the athletes go. How long they go for. How much it challenges them. This data is pretty well understood. Recovery, on the flip side, is a newer area of investigation.

What are the most effective routes to recovery, then?

Recovery is unique to each individual, but there are some elements that apply to us all. At the end of the practice or competition, we want to trigger the body’s ability to go back to its natural state – homeostasis. We know our athletes need to ingest a mix of carbs and protein to fill up the gas tank and throw in building blocks so the muscles can repair, and even be stronger than before. We also know that we need to replace water – in training camp we weigh our athletes before and after to see how much fluid they’ve lost and how much we need to replace. Most athletes these days appreciate the benefits of recovery for long-term gain.

Does that mean elite athletes are training less and resting more these days?

They’re resting smarter. They’re prioritizing recovery. And that’s a very different thing. Plus, they’re avoiding performance-robbing pursuits like drinking alcohol, because when we don’t have enough time to recover in the short-term, we see a downward spiral in the long-run.

To put it simply, if you want to perform at your best, shift your focus away from the competition, the race or the match itself. And focus instead on what happens after.

Thanks Lutz, for offering us fresh insights into the importance of recovery when exercising.

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