Enter recovery boots. Marketed as compression devices that improve recovery time and enhance training, recovery boots such as those created by NormaTec and Air Relax are both topics of lengthy discussion threads on triathlon pages and products promoted by the pros. The million-dollar question about these pricey ($400-$1000+) devices: Do they work?
The most common claim from companies that sell compression boots is that they maximize or speed recovery. Other stated benefits include decreasing muscle fatigue, mobilizing fluids, reducing toxins, and boosting performance. Drawing from techniques used for decades in the treatment of lymphedema, recovery boot systems massage lower limbs in a specific order and direction via compressed air. Applied pressure is pulsed (rather than static) and moves sequentially from distal (feet) to proximal (knee). Athletes can strap the boots on, lay down on the couch and enjoy this passive recovery device while catching up on the latest missed episodes of Game of Thrones.
Researchers generally agree that the pressure-to-pain threshold (PPT) decreases after even just one session. The PPT is a way to quantify muscle tenderness and soreness. Some studies cite improvements in muscle flexibility with the use of recovery boots, hypothesizing that dynamic compression helps move muscle tissue from a gel-like state after exercise to a more liquid-like state. Most studies also point to greater benefits following anaerobic exercise such as strength training. Recovery boots have not been linked with lower concentrations of inflammatory markers, which suggests they are not likely to speed up recovery after intense workouts.
What does all of this mean in real life? Research articles qualify and quantify; they do not include reports of personal experiences from people like you and me. Scroll any triathlon social media page and you will find plenty of athletes declaring recovery boots as worth every penny. You will also find some who say they do not notice any differences in their workouts, fatigue levels or muscle soreness. There is a lot of room for “how” in the use of these devices. Some athletes use them immediately after every workout, others occasionally, some for 15 minutes and others for an hour. Of course, training schedules vary drastically from one triathlete to the next as well. The point is, it is not hard to find emphatic fans of recovery boots in the world of triathlon. However, rather than relying on an opinion or two from online forums or product reviews, it may be helpful to ask yourself some questions before you jump on the recovery boot train:
- Is recovery an issue for you? If you do not feel limited by muscle soreness and fatigue from previous workouts, investing $500 (or more) in a recovery system does not make sense. They are not magic machines that make you go faster or farther. Spend the money on tri gear that you know you will use and enjoy.
- Do you have time to use an expensive compression boot system? Reality check: it requires an outlet (not going to happen on your commute) and you to be still for at least 15 minutes per use. If you are like me and consider your walk from the gym to the car your cool-down, and you never lie down on the couch at home, you may not be the ideal candidate for recovery boots. However, just because you do not currently incorporate cool-down periods after your workouts does not mean recovery time at home later would not benefit you. Just be honest with yourself about whether or not you would really take the time to use them.
- What do you want to get out of using recovery boots? If less muscle tenderness and tightness are your goals, a compression system may make sense for you. If you hope they will improve your overall performance, reduce inflammation or enable you to do intense workouts closer together, you will probably regret spending the money.
The bottom line is: recovery boots are not all fad. There are plenty of facts to support (some of) their claims. Now, the real dilemma is, are they right for you?
Struggling with recovering from a workout due to an ache or pain? Contact an OPT clinic near you for a free consult with a board certified physical therapist: www.outpatientpt.com