A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today
For years now, pneumatic compression sleeves — aka “recovery boots” — have been used by professional athletes in an effort to speed up recovery and enhance performance. NBA stars such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant swear by them, as does half the NFL. But their lofty price tags beg the question, do recovery boots make sense for everyday athletes? Hell, do they even work? Here’s what you need to know.
First off, what are recovery boots?
Recovery boots use a technique called intermittent pneumatic compression originally designed to treat patients suffering from lymphedema, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or pulmonary embolism (PE). They’ve become a fixture at gyms and physical therapy offices for the purpose of helping athletes flush metabolic waste from their bodies after grueling workouts. Recently, major brands have begun offering consumer versions for home use.
How do they work?
While designs vary from brand to brand, the general premise is the same: a pump fills a pair of inflatable boots with air, starting at your feet and squeezing up your legs like a tube of toothpaste.Theoretically, this type of dynamic compression increases blood flow to tired muscles, flushing out unwanted toxins that naturally result from working out and reducing inflammation from small muscle tears.
Are there any other benefits?
Improved circulation, reduced inflammation and reduced recovery time are the main reasons both pro and amateur athletes reach for recovery boots. According to some physicians, as well as the brands that sell the boots, they offer other benefits, too: increased flexibility, lower levels of muscle soreness and better injury prevention.
What does the science say?
Here’s where things get weird. Pneumatic compression’s efficacy is well-studied in the medical field, with experts mostly agreeing that recovery boots help patients suffering from lymphedema or DVT (in other words, people with compromised circulation). But what about healthy individuals — like, say, elite athletes at the top of their game? Depends whom you ask.
One 2018 study, published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, found that daily use of recovery boots “significantly decreased” muscular swelling and other consequences of working out. But another study, published in the same journal just last year, found that pneumatic compression “offered little to no benefit in recovery” when used by healthy subjects.
Has Gear Patrol tested them?
Yes, we’ve tested various recovery boots from leading manufacturers. Generally, they’re easy to use, easy to store and feel really, really good. Though the jury’s still out on the physiological benefits, there’s something to be said for their passive approach to recovery, especially for athletes who tend to cut corners on stretching or self-massaging with a foam roller. These boots do the work for you, while you catch up on your Netflix queue.
Any downsides or risks?
Numbness in your legs may occur if the pressure setting is too high. However, there are no major downsides to using recovery boots, even if the science doesn’t necessarily check out. The biggest risk is spending a bunch of money on a tool that certainly feels good but doesn’t actually work as advertised. Speaking of money …
How much do they cost?
Recovery boots don’t come cheap. Hyperice, the leader in the space, offers several different packages — including additional items for your hips and upper body — under the brand name Normatec. Basic boots start at $899 and quickly escalate from there. Therabody, which makes the Theragun, came out with its own line of recovery boots earlier this year. The RecoveryAir costs $699 and comes in three sizes — small, medium and large — while a Pro version, with more control settings, will set you back $1,299.
Are there cheaper alternatives?
If you fantasize about the possibility of sitting in front of your TV for hours while getting a leg massage, be prepared to shell out. However, recovery is a growing category, with new products launching seemingly every day.
Both Hyperice and Therabody offer massage guns, which retail for just a couple hundred bucks (though far cheaper options abound). Massage guns are more active in their approach, employing percussive therapy to break up lactic acid and increase blood flow; of course, they require you to be more active in using them, too. If you find yourself on the road a lot, they’re also far more portable.
You could also just buy yourself a foam roller, which will set you back anywhere from $10 to $40. Though less impressive than a pair of state-of-the-art recovery boots, foam rollers are pretty effective at targeting sore muscles. And you can still use one in front of the TV.
So, what’s the verdict?
An exciting product with a lot of promise, recovery boots are anything but a straight for-ward buy — especially for everyday athletes. There just haven’t been enough studies to justify the current price of entry. But like with some supplements, if you’re a hardcore athlete who likes to stay on the bleeding edge of sports science, the cost may be an easier pill to swallow.
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