Muscle damage and delayed onset muscle soreness can hamper performance in sports and training. Speeding up the rate of recovery can mean better performance and bigger gains in the long-term. Good nutrition, rest, and optimal hydration are the staples of recovery that we typically imagine when thinking about recovering from a hard training session.However, there are many products on the market that claim to help speed the process along. In fact, some of these products claim to help heal or prevent injuries. Let’s check out some of these claims.
If this topic interests you, be sure to check out our guide on muscle recovery by following the link.
The Importance of Recovery
The science of recovery has become more and more recognized as a critical piece of the training science equation. Oftentimes, exercise places a much higher physiologic demand on the body involving many body/organ systems including but not limited to the nervous, endocrine, lymphatic, circulatory, pulmonary, and musculoskeletal systems.
The metabolic systems, circulatory, nervous systems, and musculoskeletal systems must work overtime during exercise to supply working muscles with nutrients as well as provide the neural drive to complete movement.
Likewise, the circulatory system must work hard to deliver oxygen to working muscle cells. Mechanical stress placed on the muscles causes damage to them leading to an inflammatory process and oftentimes, a temporary weakening of the stressed tissues. Depletion of fuel and changes in electrolyte balance led to metabolic fatigue (Thorpe, 2021).
Luckily, the body is very adaptable to these kinds of stresses. Not only do the body systems recover, but they come back in better shape than they started. These adaptations are the WHY behind training as they result in things like improved aerobic capacity, muscle size, muscle strength, muscle endurance, bone and connective tissue strength, neural drive, etc.
However, the process of returning to homeostasis (or normal physiology) is not something that occurs immediately following the cessation of exercise. Rather, depending on the volume and intensity of the workout, it can take up to 48 to 72 hours (Patel & Zwibel, 2020). It is not only the muscles that must recover, but the nervous system and connective tissues and each of these systems recovers at different rates and requires slightly different recovery parameters.
The cost of inadequate recovery is injury. Think of this analogy. You are knitting a sweater and you unravel a piece of it to change the color or use a better-quality yarn. You get halfway through repairing the hole and decide to go to bed. The next day, you decide to unravel another piece of the sweater before you fix the original defect, run out of material, and go to bed. If this process continues every day, eventually the sweater will be destroyed.
Although our bodies can adapt to quite a bit of stress, long-term failure to recover from training can cause many problems including but not limited to hormonal dysfunction, tendinopathies, muscle tears, stress fractures, etc. Failure to recover can make us weaker and dampen future performance (Dupuy et al., 2018).
Are There Products That Can Help?
Massage Balls and Foam Rollers
Self-myofascial (SMR) release is a staple in most training programs for both the warm-up and the cooldown. Massage balls and foam rollers are typical made of a dense foam material and can be used to improve range of motion, improve circulation, mobilize the fascia, and muscle tissues not moving optimally, reduce muscle soreness, and help to relax tight muscles (Thorpe, 2021).
Currently, research does not have a firm grasp on how SMR produces these results, but these benefits are seen both anecdotally and in research settings.
Foam rollers and massage balls come in various shapes, sizes, and densities. Foam rollers are generally a cylindrical shape while massage balls are a bit smaller and can be used to target harder to reach areas. Theoretically, the denser the foam roller, the better the response from SMR, however this is not necessarily the case.
Cheatham & Stull (2018) conducted a small study (36 adults) looking at the efficacy of soft, medium, and hard density foam rollers to determine which was most effective on knee range of motion and the participant’s pain perception.
The researchers determined that each of the foam roller types appeared to be equally effective at improving the knee ROM, but the harder density foam rollers increase the participant’s pain perception. It may be a good idea to start with a lighter density foam roller to see if the benefits are observed.
Generally, foam roller and massage balls are inexpensive and can run from as little as $5.00 and as much as $50.00 (Skjong & Roberts, 2021).
Hot and Cold Treatment
Hot and cold treatments provide different benefits for recovery, or in the treatment of an injury, but may also have contraindications. Many of us will instinctively reach for an ice pack with an acute injury such as an ankle or wrist sprain. Heat treatment tends to increase blood flow to the affected area also potentially speeding up recovery time and relaxing stressed muscle tissues.
In contrast, cold treatment is often used to reduce swelling and inflammation however, does cold treatment help speed recovery time and reduce muscle soreness? Furthermore, does reducing swelling and inflammation speed or hinder recovery? Is heat treatment better for recovery?
Wang et al. (2021) conducted a meta-analysis to examine several post-exercise treatments and measured their effectiveness as tool for speeding up recovery. The ten studies examined the effects of these treatments on delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). The researchers determined that the use of a heat pack was most effective within 48 hours of the exercise bout and cryotherapy (a cold treatment) was most effective after the 48-hour mark.
Petrofsky et al. (2015) went a step further and examined the effects of hot and cold therapies on both DOMS and markers of muscle damage. The authors concluded that both cold and heat treatments were more effective at reducing DOMS and speeding recovery than no intervention, however, heat treatment was more effective within the first 24 hours while cold therapy was most effective after 24 hours.
It appears that heat therapy may be more effective when used closer to the exercise bout, while cold therapy may be more effective at speeding recovery 24-48 hours after an exercise bout. Heat therapy can be applied with a run of the mill heating pad, heated blankets, or specialized heating pack. There are many of these products available ranging from $15.00 to upwards of $300.00 (Rehabmart, 2022).
These devices are relatively new to the fitness scene but have become especially popular with the athletic population. Most activity trackers are based on a combination of physiologic data (i.e., respiratory rate, body temperature, oxygen saturation, hours of sleep and the quality of that sleep, etc.). However, the primary driver behind the recovery tracker technology is a marker called heart rate variability or HRV.
HRV is a measure of the variability of you heart rate- basically the time change between each beat. The autonomic nervous system is comprised of the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for hyping the body up by pumping out adrenaline, increasing heart rate and blood pressure to deal with an acute stress. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system is supposed to calm everything down and reverse these effects. HRV is a marker of how well the autonomic nervous system is functioning.
Essentially it is an indirect marker of the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Generally, recovery trackers tend to give higher recovery scores for higher HRV and lower recovery scores for lower HRV. However, HRV is highly variable from individual to individual, so these devices are designed to calculate HRV values based on the users’ specific baseline levels (Shaffer & Ginsberg, 2017).
The most well-known trackers made specifically for measuring recovery are the Whoop™ and the Oura ring ™, though other companies such as Garmin™, Apple™, and Fitbit™ have incorporated HRV technology into their newer models. This data can be extremely useful for athletes with hard training schedules and can provide insights into their own physiology that is more concrete than just feeling overtrained. It is a way to train a bit smarter rather than harder.
However, it is important to note that HRV is most useful for athletes participating in a lot of cardio training. This is especially true in healthier young adults where resistance training alone does not have much effect on resting HRV (Kingsley & Figueroa, 2016).
Recovery trackers commonly require a subscription service which range from $20.00 to $50.0 per month although some devices (i.e., some Garmin devices and Apple Watch) may not require a subscription but run from $300.00 to $700.00 (Jovin, 2022).
Compression/Semi-conductor Infused Products
Compression clothing items can have beneficial effects both during and after exercise. Overall, the purpose of compression gear is to improve circulation to the muscles by providing pressure on the muscles and raising the temperature of the covered area to achieve increased blood flow. This helps to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and speed recovery.
It seems that many current studies support the efficacy of the use of compression products during recovery, but the evidence is less apparent for use during exercise (Beliard et al., 2015). Compression products can range anywhere from $25.00 to several hundred dollars depending on the item (Rehabmart, 2022).
Recovery clothing has gone beyond just compression products in recent years. The rise of germanium infused clothing has shown much promise in increasing circulation to the affected area thereby reducing recovery time, decreasing inflammation and delayed-onset-muscle soreness. Germanium is a semi-conductor and works by releasing negative ions in response to body heat. These negative ions cause cellular vibrations which in turn increase circulation to the affected area (Incrediwear Holdings, 2022).
Marino et al. (2019) conducted a randomized controlled trial on the efficacy of germanium infused knee sleeves on 50 adults over the age of 45 with osteoarthritis. The researchers determined that the use of the knee sleeves significantly reduced knee pain and improved knee function, especially in patients with grade 1 or 2 osteoarthritis.
Germanium infused clothing products are also made as socks, arm sleeves, shoulder sleeves, and back braces. These products range from $15.00 to $100.00 depending on which item is purchased (Incrediwear Holdings, 2022).
Recovery is part of the program and is a critical part of keeping us feeling and performing well. Though not a substitute for proper rest and nutrition, there is a lot of technology on the market that can give us some assistance in speeding up recovery time. Most recovery products are safe, non-invasive, and oftentimes quite affordable and can be an excellent addition to your fitness gadget collection.
Beliard, S., Chauveau, M., Moscatiello, T., Cros, F., Ecarnot, F., & Becker, F. (2015). Compression garments and exercise: no influence of pressure applied. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 14(1), 75–83. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4306786/
Cheatham, S. W., & Stull, K. R. (2018). Comparison of three different density type foam rollers on knee range of motion and pressure pain threshold: A randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 13(3), 474–482. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6044602/
Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
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Marino, K., Lee, R., & Lee, P. (2019). Effect of Germanium-Embedded Knee Sleeve on Osteoarthritis of the Knee. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 7(10), 232596711987912. https://doi.org/10.1177/2325967119879124
Patel, P. N., & Zwibel, H. (2020). Physiology, Exercise. PubMed; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482280/
Petrofsky, J. S., Khowailed, I. A., Lee, H., Berk, L., Bains, G. S., Akerkar, S., Shah, J., Al-Dabbak, F., & Laymon, M. S. (2015). Cold Vs. Heat After Exercise—Is There a Clear Winner for Muscle Soreness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(11), 3245–3252. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001127
Rehabmart. (2022). Hot & Cold Therapy | Cooling Compress | Ice Packs | Heating Pads | SALE. Rehabmart.com. https://www.rehabmart.com/category/hot_and_cold_therapy.htm
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Skjong, I., & Roberts, A. (2021, June 21). The Best Foam Rollers. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/reviews/best-foam-rollers/
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Wang, Y., Lu, H., Li, S., Zhang, Y., Yan, F., Huang, Y., Chen, X., Yang, A., Han, L., & Ma, Y. (2021). Effect of cold and heat therapies on pain relief in patients with delayed onset muscle soreness: A network meta-analysis. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine. https://doi.org/10.2340/jrm.v53.331