When you’re hurting after a hard workout and eager to get to your next one—or, at least, to be able to get out of bed without groaning—anything that promises to make you feel better, faster has some appeal.
And these days, there’s no shortage of products and experiences making that very promise, or at least something like it, from compression boots to massage tools to cryotherapy to infrared saunas.
While those “recovery” tools may feel good, the truth is that they probably aren’t actually helping to speed up muscle recovery. And according to physical therapist and run coach Victoria Sekely, DPT, CSCS, that isn’t even necessarily an outcome worth pursuing. “Why do we need to speed that up?” she says. “Our body needs to go through the process of recovering, and you want that to be done properly, and that’s going to take time.”
Experts In This Article
It isn’t hard to draw the connection between our desire to recover faster—and therefore get to our next hard workout faster—and the hustle culture mentality that tells us that resting is for the weak. “It’s very linked to that idea that we should be working all the time and constantly doing hard efforts, and that’s how we’re going to improve,” Dr. Sekely says. “But in reality, you should very much be taking your recovery days.”
And by recovery days, she means the ones that come naturally to your body. “Our bodies are ridiculously good at doing what they do,” says Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, CISSN, an exercise physiologist and trainer. “They often just need to be fed well and rested when appropriate, and we get a lot out of that.”
Is it even possible to speed up your recovery?
The actual, physiological process that your body goes through after a difficult workout—your cells rebuild the microscopic tears in your muscles, eventually making them stronger—can’t be sped up by a massage gun or an ice bath. “It has to happen in the way it’s going to happen,” says Dr. Sekely. “Your muscle doesn’t respond to a massage gun hammering at it—your muscle responds to blood flow, the nutrients you’re giving it, how you’re sleeping. There’s no amount of massage gun that’s going to help the fibers physically get back together.”
But, it’s worth considering what the word “recovery” has come to signify in fitness and wellness spaces—and if it has become overly conflated with “self-care.” Can recovery tools like massage guns, infrared saunas, and compression boots provide a reduction in pain or soreness (not to mention a relaxing experience)? Sure. But they won’t change the fact that your body needs time to literally rebuild after a hard workout. “The effects that you’re getting are short-term,” says Dr. Sekely. “So they’re not harmful, but they’re also not doing much.”
The actual keys to recovery
While there’s nothing wrong with using recovery tools if they feel good after a hard workout, both Holland and Dr. Sekely say their concern is that they distract from what we really need to recover: rest, sleep, refueling, and rehydrating.
“Until you get those things happening consistently, I don’t care how many ice baths you take—it’s not going to make a difference,” says Holland. “If you are training correctly and you are fueling, sure, let’s talk about the boots—going out for a 20-mile run and then putting those on does feel good. But if you come right home and jump in the ice bath or put on the boots and you don’t refuel and you don’t rehydrate, then it’s diminishing returns.”
Dr. Sekely says we need to remember there’s no true need to drop $500 for a fancy piece of equipment to recover—our bodies will do that all on their own if we just give them time.
Should you use recovery tools at all?
As long as your recovery product of choice isn’t breaking your bank, go ahead and use it if it makes you feel good—just be sure you’re also paying attention to your sleep, fuel, and hydration, and taking ample rest before your next hard effort.
Your favorite recovery tools may even be helping in the rest and sleep departments. A study (funded by Theragun, admittedly) found that using a massage gun before bed helped people fall asleep faster and wake up fewer times at night. And compression boots might help our muscles more fully relax, according to exercise physiologist Sharon Gam, PhD, CSCS. “The boots are…giving you a little bit of structure and support to allow even those tiny, tiny little muscles…to let go,” she previously told Well+Good about why compression boots can give you an even greater sense of release than you can get from just lying on the couch.
Another potential benefit: Knowing you have a reward at the end of your workout may inspire you to get movin’ more often. Plus, says Holland, “The placebo effect is the most powerful tool in sports psychology,” he says. “So I’m all for that—I’m just not okay with people wasting their time and money.”