From intense ice baths to super-charged massage, post-workout recovery technologies are making their way from the facilities of pro sports teams to the masses.
In recent years, the number of weekend warriors — amateur and recreational athletes who train for events around a full-time job — has seen unprecedented growth. The rise in fitness activities has many turning to new technologies, including wearables that track and coach workout routines and innovations that speed recovery.
Since 2010, more than a half million people have completed U.S. marathons every year, and nearly the same number participated in American triathlons. In the past 15 years, CrossFit has ballooned to 13,000 affiliated gyms internationally up to 4 million people participating in its WODs (Workouts of the Day). Even recreational hiking is on the upswing, with a record number of outdoorspeople taking on the Appalachian Trail in 2015.
When people train harder, they ask more of their bodies and require time and techniques to recover so they can do it all over again another day.
Traditional modalities such as stretching, manual therapies such as foam rolling and massage, and ice baths are part of the plan, especially at elite training centers, said Jesse Elis, a physical therapist and the PT department’s director at EXOS. But technology is also finding its place in the sports recovery world, often providing positive results more efficiently.
EXOS, a performance training center with facilities in 10 states and an Intel partner, works with pro and amateur athletes to bring out their best while keeping them healthy. Naturally, its physical therapy department plays an integral role.
“We bridge the gap between performance and rehab, trying to enhance the recovery state of our athletes,” said Ellis.
EXOS’s experts use various therapies to help the body more efficiently clear out the byproducts of exercise — lactic acid and cellular debris. The therapies also ease a workout’s effects of microtrauma on the muscle fibers to prevent muscles from tightening up and maintain mobility, all with an eye on preventing injuries.
One such tech-focused technique is compression therapy by NormaTec. The company’s sleeves fit over various parts of the body and fill with air to systematically compress muscles from the extremities in toward the core.
“It mimics a muscular contraction to pump the blood back toward the kidneys and heart to be filtered and re-pumped out with fresh oxygen,” explained Elis.
It’s like a highly systematic massage, with the aim to aid muscular repair and reduce the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that commonly occurs 24 to 48 hours after a hard workout.
Cold as Ice
Another therapy that’s hot in the recovery world is cryotherapy. Popular among collegiate and pro teams for several years, cryotherapy involves submerging an injured limb or an entire body into chambers filled with air super-cooled to around -260 degrees. This exposes an athlete’s body to intense cold for just a few minutes.
“It’s like an extreme version of an ice bath,” Elis said. “The idea is to shock the system and send blood shunting back to the heart.”
But because temps are much colder and exposure time is shorter, users often find it more tolerable than the typical 8- to 12-minute submersion in an icy tub. And now this therapy is becoming available to the general population. Dallas-based CryoUSA, for example, sells units to commercial gyms and provides treatments at its own membership-based Phoenix ReGen Centers. Another company, Polar Therapeutics in Portland, OR, takes its cryo show on the road with mobile units towed to gyms and events in trailers.
Newer still are Cryosense units, which work on the premise of contrast baths or hot/cold immersion therapy.
In a Cryosense session, users are hit with alternating cold and hot air blasts to encourage vasoconstriction and dilation, which can improve blood flow and stimulate healing. They’re also not as intimidating or physically uncomfortable as cryotherapy alone can be.
Also making waves is a form of light therapy called photobiomodulation (PBM). It looks like a tanning bed but emits infrared and near-infrared LED lights (not UV) that safely penetrate down to the muscular level. The idea is to repair damaged cells by reducing “oxidative stress,” which has been known to cause localized and systemic inflammation in the body.
Treatments have been shown to reduce pain, improve muscle recovery and promote healing. NovoTHOR currently makes the only full-body treatment bed (other PBM units are used locally on specific body parts). CryoUSA’s Murdock reports Oregon’s Nike Project brought its bed to Rio for the Olympics.
Traditional massage therapy gets a super-charge with technology from HIVAMAT that sends high-speed vibrations through the therapist’s hands and deep into the recipient’s muscle tissue. The therapist attaches an electrode to her forearm, while the recipient holds a “ground” loosely in one hand to direct the current. It’s said to facilitate the body’s reabsorption of fluids that cause edema, particularly at sites of injury or surgery.
“It’s pretty cool,” Elis said. “You can feel the energy pulsing.”
No matter the role of technology, making time and effort for a recovery routine is paramount in anyone’s training program. Active recovery days that include cross-training (such as pool workouts or yoga), focused system-calming sessions of deep diaphragmatic breathing and an early and consistent bedtime are clutch. After all, technology can’t magically alleviate an athlete’s soreness.
“All these devices are great,” Elis said, “but if you’re not managing your overall stress and getting good sleep, you won’t be recovering fully.”