Recovery is a crucial part of any training regimen, and in recent years, many different devices and techniques have been developed to power athletes through post-workout aches and pains. Heralded by many elite athletes, one such piece of equipment is the recovery boot, a device used to apply dynamic pressure to muscle tissue after a strenuous workout. These trendy boots have served the U.S. Olympic team since the 2010 games and have graced the legs of professional athletes such as Lebron James across sports.
However, as with any new athletic performance trend, we have to ask the questions: How does it work? It is effective in the long-term? And, is it worth the price?
First, let’s get a little clearer about what recovery boots are and what they do.
Recovery boots are large boot-like devices that cover most of the leg. During the initial phase of use, the boots inflate to conform to each individual’s body shape. They then employ compressed air to deliver dynamic pressure to the muscle tissue, starting at the feet and working their way up the legs. Much like the intestines use a wave-like pulsing to push food forward through the canal, recovery boots apply peristaltic pressure to the legs at specific intervals in order to encourage the flow of blood and to flush out metabolic waste that has accumulated during a workout.
Proponents of recovery boots argue that the device decreases soreness, improves recovery time, and offers a relaxing experience. By flushing out some of the toxins that build up during your exercise routine, recovery boots can help the body return healthy, oxygenated blood back to the legs to help them recover after a strenuous workout.
However, in a 2013 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine of 10 male athletes, researchers found that there was no significant improvement in recovery in the participants who used recovery boots. The athletes were subject to a strenuous bout of activity and then had their muscle performance and blood tested at 24, 48, and 72 hours. Both groups saw a decrease in performance, thus the researchers called into question the effectiveness of the technology.
Still, there are a few studies of recovery boot technology that have shown some promise. A 2015 study of 24 elite athletes in the Journal for Strength and Conditioning Research found that, compared with a control group, those who used recovery boots for 15-minutes post workout experienced an improvement in their pressure-to-pain threshold (PPT). PPT is often used to evaluate muscle tenderness and soreness. Those participants who used the boots were able to withstand more pressure before experiencing pain than the control group, which researchers believe demonstrates a decrease in muscle soreness.
Similarly, a 2014 study in the Journal for Strength and Conditioning Research tested nine subjects who could perform a forward split and found that the trial group that used the recovery boots experienced a slight improvement in their range of motion, suggesting that recovery boots could aid somewhat in maintaining flexibility after a hard workout.
Likewise, a 2015 study in the same journal studied the effects of using recovery boots after repeated anaerobic exercises. While the results showed that there was no significant change in performance for participants, those who used recovery boots experienced a significant decrease in blood lactate concentrate. Lactic acid buildup is what gives you that sore feeling after a high-intensity workout, thus the use of recovery boots could speed up the process of filtering lactic acid out of your system, decreasing that achy post-workout feeling.
Other studies have found similar benefits to lactic acid clearing; however, it hasn’t been shown to be more effective than a simple cool down or active recovery program.
However, it’s important to note that most of the studies that have shown positive results in the effectiveness of recovery boots and dynamic compression rely on the participant’s subjective experience to confirm results. As RunSmart Online founder Steve Gonser notes, “Pain to pressure isn’t a reliable way to measure effectiveness.” He adds, “The findings become more subjective in nature, thus, allowing for the placebo effect to drive results.”
Study results are also typically limited to a window of anywhere from 24 to 72 hours, begging the question: what are the effects of using recovery boots over the longer term? And, how does using this technology compare with simpler recovery methods such as performing a dynamic cooldown or using compression garments?
At this point, it remains unclear whether and how effective recovery boots actually are. More research is still necessary to weed out the placebo effect and demonstrate the effect of using recovery boots in a more long-term way. And, given that the boots can run you up to $1,000 or more, it’s likely that they aren’t worth the cost for the everyday athlete.
So, what can you do if you want an effective and much less expensive option for recovering after your workouts?
As Gonser notes, improving strength and speed is all about having a healthy cycle of breakdown and recovery. You want to avoid having successive breakdown events without allowing your body the time it needs to achieve a full recovery. Focus on smarter training that provides the appropriate time for recovery after periods of building or hard effort.
As previously proven, Gonser also recommends taking your cool down seriously. “A light effort while running, biking, and even walking at the end of your run can be just as effective as strapping some costly boots to your legs and laying down for 30 minutes.”