The best thing I tried all year for recovery were these wacky compression sleeves


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Photo: Getty/Delmaine Donson

I’ve done some wild things to save time, including but not limited to: eating soup on the subway, wearing my entire outfit for the next day to bed, and not washing my legs in the shower. So when I was introduced to the NormaTec Pulse 2.0 Leg Recovery System, a fitness-gadget said to speed up recovery and help you get back on your feet after a tough workout, I was intrigued.

If you’ve never heard of or seen NormaTec, envision giant black floaties that zip up and sheath your legs from toe to crotch. Each of these components gets attached to a hose that attaches to a control system. The sleeves inflate and deflate at a tempo that’s designed to “mobilize fluids in the body to help you heal and recover faster after exercise,” says Gilad Jacobs, the CEO of NormaTec. “The device uses air compression technology to get the bad stuff out, and get the good stuff in.” To understand how this happens, I consulted top mobility pros to suss out how it works and if it’s really as good as its reputation.

How NormaTec works, exactly

To understand the principles behind NormaTec, you first have to understand what happens to muscles at the gym while you’re there and once you leave. “When you work out you’re actually creating little, tiny tears in your muscles,” explains physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, founder of Movement Vault, a digital movement education platform. After you leave the gym, molecular doctors (called “satellite cells”) from outside the muscles rush to the site of damage to repair those tissues. This process ultimately leaves our muscle fibers stronger than they were before the micro tears happened.

One of the ways you can speed up this process is by increasing blood flow to the area. “Our blood carries nutrients and red blood cells, which are used in the repair process,” explains Wickham. Active recovery, by way of low intensity walking, jogging, or hiking promotes blood flow to the muscles to help heal them quicker. NormaTec does a similar thing, without actually requiring you to get up and move. “The compression technology increases blood flow, and carries nutrient-dense, oxygenated blood to the site of muscle damage, all while you sit there wearing them,” explains Jacobs.

And the system does more than just increase blood flow. When you work out, especially at really high intensities or for really high rep counts, a “waste product” called lactic acid gets produced and builds up in the muscles.  If you’ve ever sprinted a 400-meter run, done a CrossFit workout, or gone ham at Barry’s Bootcamp, you’re probably familiar with hurts-so-good sensation of lactic acid build up. “The pulsating mechanism in the NormaTec compression system flushes this waste product and lowers blood lactate concentrations faster than your body would naturally,” explains Wickham. Research proves it: In one study published in the Journal of Athletic Enhancements compression technology, like that used by NormaTec, was found to reduce lactic acid build up better than passive recovery. The best way to describe the benefits? “Fresher legs faster,” according to Jacobs. After consistently using the device for a week, I agree.

What happened when I tried NormaTec

I’m currently following a muscle hypertrophy plan, which means that I’m lifting heavy and often to make my muscles big. As a result, I’m sore basically alllll the time (don’t worry, Coach promises this normal!).  Curious if using NormaTec every single day would help my legs feel less like lead, I procured a pair and was ready to get to work.

Each night after CrossFit, I slide into the sleeves and turn on the OC while the sleeves work their magic. Wearing them kinda feels like having a masseuse per leg glide up and down them with perfect pressure and precision. And while the whole process is rather relaxing, the biggest change I feel comes almost immediately after using them. For ten minutes after shedding the sleeves, my legs feel so much lighter, almost as if I’m in a zero gravity tank, but the next morning I wake up and feel more-or-less like I always do.

I decide that consistency is key and so I keep on using them for six days post-gym, and each time, the effects feel like they’re adding up. I checked off a big-time personal weightlifting record, and while it’s hard to say if I nailed the lift because of my coaches’ programming or this new recovery system, we know that to go harder, you have to recover better. So, this is definitely playing some role in my fitness game.

The way I see it, the system definitely does what it promises, and you can’t beat the convenience, ease, or portability of the device. But Wickham tells me: “When it comes to optimizing recovery, the best thing you can do is get enough sleep and manage your stress levels.” I’m working on clocking eight-hours and keeping my cortisol levels low, but knowing that this time-saver exists, doesn’t exactly hurt.

Did you know it’s possible to track your recovery? Yep, and a device like the Whoop can help. 

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