Improve Recovery and Performance through “Via Negativa”

Weight loss supplements. Muscle building supplements. Home massage tools. There is a tendency in fitness and rehab to want to keep adding more and more interventions to improve recovery and performance. Unfortunately, many of these things, have marginal to zero real benefit (beyond possibly feeling good in the moment). And we often fail to consider how powerful subtraction can be. This removal of barriers is summed up in the term “via negativa”, popularized by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile. The idea is that removal can be a powerful strategy that often is cheaper and simpler than adding more. For example, if a pebble in your shoe is causing you a tad of pain, what’s the best solution? You could buy specialized padded socks. Or insert a fancy pebble-shielding shoe insert. Or purchase special shoes that offload the spot where the pebble is. Or you could just remove the pebble.

In the fitness and rehab world, examples abound of adding interventions of marginal benefit, rather than removing barriers to performance and recovery. Consider foam rolling, often recommend as a recovery strategy. While it feels great, foam rolling only has a minor effect on decreasing muscle soreness. On the other hand, improving sleep quality (and quantity when possible) is foundational to recovery.

Some people claim that things like foam rolling are cheap and have no real cost. I would say practices like foam rolling DO have a cost. The reality is that time, energy, and attention are limited. Your time and energy spent foam rolling could be better spent on other more important activities. Further, doing marginally beneficial things, like foam rolling, can distract us from more important practices. For example, if someone foam rolls for 10 minutes but regularly stares into a bright, blue light emitting screen before bed, how great will their recovery be? What if those 10 minutes were instead invested in powering down the phone and starting a relaxing bedtime ritual like having a cup of chamomile tea?

Now to clarify I am not against practices like foam rolling, per se. The issue arises when people start adding in these practices over more fundamental tactics, like managing sleep quality.

So to sum up, before ADDING more, consider asking what can I SUBTRACT to improve recovery and performance?

*There are some supplements (like creatine for strength and building muscle) which are effective. However, the list of truly effective supplements is quite small and they should be just that-supplements. They are not foundational for recovery and performance.

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