Saturday, November 12, 2011

Inflation.... the good kind

On my most recent visit to my massage therapist, I got to try out the latest in sports recovery. You may have heard about this being used heavily during Le Tour de France.

It's basically a pair of boots that go from foot to hip - or in my case, upper thigh - that are hooked up to an air pump. The contraption then inflates the boots to compress the muscles in your legs. One of the programs starts at the ankles and moves up the leg. Other programs simply inflate the whole leg boot. The program I was on was the former.

The theory is the same as around compression socks and tights, only taken to a more significant level. Compression of the muscles after a difficult effort is purported to help with circulation, which in turn aids recovery. They keep blood from pooling in the lower extremities. It's been used for years to treat medical conditions related to problems around circulation and there is some medical evidence to suggest this works well for athlete's and recovery for the same reasons. There was a good blog post I found on this subject here.

Anecdotally, I've noticed that wearing compression sleeves on my calves after tough workouts, does seem to help them avoid some of the achy-ness a day or so later (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness - DOMS). In fact the three most significant rituals that have really helped speed my long run recoveries have been:

1. Substantive and balanced recovery drink within the 30 minute 'glycogen' window after a sustained, tough effort. During that window, your body absorbs carbohydrates at a rate that is 3x (300%) higher than normal. This is part of calorie timing.

2. Ice bath - you get used to it, and it really does work. Sitting in the tub with cold water and 5lb of ice cubes floating around you. Hint - wear a sweatshirt and read the paper to pass the time.

3. Compression sleeves on my calves until the next morning. I haven't yet tried the full tights - might be a little unwieldy.

There are some suggestions that compression can help with performance as well, but the evidence there is more spotty. I do notice a difference wearing compression tights on recovery runs, but they actually seem to inhibit me a little in trying to run fast.

Pneumatic compression pictured above is a much more active form of compression and certainly, you'd have a tough time running with those big boots on, carrying the vacuum pump along with you. These are purely for recovery and again, they have some pretty strong medical data and usage behind them prior to athletes strapping them on.

So how was the experience?

Well, it was right after a sport massage, so the compression on the muscles felt good. Like someone with VERY big hands pushing the muscle and tissue towards my upper body to kind of finish them off in a massage kind of way. In that regard they were kind of an amplified version of what a massage therapist does towards the end of a massage. There were a couple times when it felt like it was going to pass over the threshold of too much pressure and some pain, but it always backed off right before that. The setting I was using was 10/10 - so that's to be expected.

Right afterwards my legs felt better than they usually feel after a massage. And that lasted at least until the next morning. In short, they seemed to help 'recover' from the massage.

I had a tough pacing run the next day. On that I didn't really notice any difference from the previous days session. Granted, it's tough to pull apart all those different things (recovering from China travel, workout two days prior, massage, compression, weather conditions (it was cold out), etc).

So the jury is out on whether the pneumatic compression is worth it. My massage therapist hasn't decided how much he would charge for a session like that, or how he even wants to work it into his practice. I was just one of his data points / experiments.

I do think my current rituals around recovery seem to be working pretty well. And massage about every 4-6 weeks definitely helps to keep things loosened up during training season too. But I probably won't be dropping the $750 bucks or so for the home version of the big moon boots any time soon.

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