Recovery Addict: How overemphasizing recovery creates dependency

On my glass shower door is a message scrawled across in black marker in my distinctly illegible handwriting that says "Look the other way." It's not some cryptic paranoid message, but instead it's a daily reminder to consider other possibilities. I've found that, whenever we see everyone jumping on the bandwagon and all nodding in agreement about the next big thing, it's the perfect time to take a glance over your shoulder and consider the alternative.


It's with this notion that I want to consider our view on recovery. No, I'm not going to cover the topic of over-recovering, as I have in the past, instead I want to consider what recovery does to us psychologically.

It starts with a mindset:
Whether it’s about ‘growth’, motivation or how we view stress, in the world of behavioral psychology, you can’t escape the term mindset. They are all the rage.

The example for stress is a simple one. If little Johnny is on the starting line of a race, looking nervous, we’d be perceived as well meaning coaches if we run over to him and say “Just try to relax.” It’s a common occurrence throughout all sports, and based on the frequency of hearing these words, one would expect such coaching cues were in every coaching handbook known to man. Except, it’s bad advice.

For the reason it back fires, we need to look no further than relationships. Why?  Much to the bewilderment of confused partners throughout the world, when you tell your partner to ‘relax’ or ‘chill out’ they are likely to send a piercing glare back at you with a few choice words for good measure. While in the moment, you may see this as a horrible overreaction to you simply saying “relax”, what you are actually telling them is “Oh my god! You look incredibly stressed!” Our mind gets the message that if someone is telling me to ‘relax’ I have to look anxious and stressed out of my mind.



As I’ve previously discussed on this blog and in the podcast, research shows that how we view stress impacts our ability to perform. See it as a challenge and it becomes beneficial. See it as a threat, and we dip down into survival mode. This might be simplistic, but the point is what matters for now.

And that brings us to what we’ll call the recovery mindset.

In talking about recovery to my co-author on our next book project, Brad Stulberg, he relayed a recent interview he’d done with mobility expert Kelly Starrett. In that meeting, Kelly stopped Brad in his tracks when he mentioned the word ‘recovery’and said something along the lines of “it’s adaptation, not recovery. You recover from an injury, not a workout.”

This simple point was about framing our mindset. When we frame recovery as a repair module, then it all becomes about recovering until the next hard workout. To say we need recovery, is to say that we look pretty beat up.  On the other hand, adaptation frames it as we are ‘growing’ and improving.

Now, while this might seem like pseudo-psychology BS, if we step back and see how recovery is positioned in the world of sport, it’s a much-needed change.

Straight into the tub:
Walk into any college or professional team’s training room and you’ll likely see dozens of recovery modalities. From ice baths to sauna’s to compression sleeves that fill with air to any number of zapping, shocking, sounding machines that are all aimed at doing something for recovery. Add in the massage, chiro, adjustments, PT, and whatever else people do now a days and you have a venerable army of ways to get ready to perform.

Am I saying that all of these modalities are useless? Absolutely not. They have a time and a place. I’ve discussed periodizing recovery modalities before, but this post isn’t about that. This blog is about the idea of creating dependency.

The point is that if you use adjustments, massage, ice baths, or whatever else, you need to prevent the athlete from NEEDING them to perform.  If we constantly adjust, in search of feeling perfect, we are constantly telling the athlete that the only way they can perform is if we have Joe do X, Y, and Z adjustment or for you to get in the normatec boots before practice.

In other words, we are creating dependency.

We are telling the athlete that in order to perform, they need A, B, and C modality performed. And if they don’t get it, they are not ready to perform. If it’s repeated enough, it becomes so ingrained that it’s a necessity.

When an athlete is overly reliant on anything it becomes a crutch. When they need their 15-minute massage during the warm-up just to feel right, the message they are getting is that they can’t perform unless they feel perfect.  If anything at all is ‘off’ or their legs just don’t feel right, then that becomes a built in reason why they cannot perform up to par.

Dependency creates the illusion of a need for perfection. And perfection is a fragile state.

Instead, while this might seem idiotic and horrible coaching, I think there is something refreshing to when an athlete has a less than ideal warm-up/pre-race/pre-workout routine and somehow still pulls it off. It doesn’t mean that this should be the ideal, but there’s something freeing when an athlete knows he is going into a warm up feeling subpar, that he or she can still pull out a solid race. I've had athletes do nothing but jump rope before a race and still run near PR's. Was it ideal? absolutely not. But it takes away the reliance on feeling of perfection to run fast.

Now, before you stop and say, "you want us to run through everything and never fix anything," you're missing the point. One of my high school coaches used to make the point to us, 'you need to know the difference between pain that is soreness and pain that is leading to an injury.'  His point was that you have expected soreness and you have unexpected. You need to be able to discern when you need help and when you need to let things run it's natural course. And the same goes with adding in modalities and performing.  As coaches, it's our job to set them up for performance in the best way, which may include using various modalities. But it's also to engender the ability to perform at the highest stage in as many different venues and situations as possible.

Athletes need to be able to perform at a high level, regardless of the state they are in. They need to have expectations of performing up to their abilities even if they are a little sore or flat or simply out of it. They might not perform their absolute best, but they should strive for it.


After all, even with the best coaches, scientists, and therapists in the world, we can’t predict how the human body will react. Come Olympic final, you might feel horrible, even if you did everything right. And you need to know that even if you perceive yourself to be feeling subpar, you can still pull out your best performance.

That doesn’t come from dependency. That comes from being robust, anti-fragile, and independent. It comes from creating a much needed disconnect between perception of how you feel and the results of the race.



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3 comments:

  1. A lot of baseless claims with no evidence. "We are telling athletes" - who is "we"? Quantify that for us. All you've done in this article is stated that emphasizing recovery leads to addiction, but you've offered no tangible evidence to back that up.

    "Pain that is soreness" *is* pain leading to an injury. When a kid is sore, they should back off the next day. I've seen too many athletes become over-trained or injured from running on sore legs, often as a result of coaches pushing them through things like shin or hamstring pain.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I really like this article, refers to the concept of awareness.
    if you do at least a slice of this, you can train a life without getting the goal.
    this applies not only for sports, but for every aspect of life.
    We could work for all entire life, up to the extreme, but without ever understanding destination and position.
    understanding our innermost feelings, withh no external influences.
    from here start the real challenge!

    ReplyDelete
  3. seems like this applies only to neurotic runners

    ReplyDelete

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