Published Sept. 8, 2010
Recovery gear: the next step in high performance or the emperor’s new clothes?
Last month, I signed up for the Lowell Sun Half Marathon, a race more than four times the length of any I’ve run before. I’m aiming to finish in just under two hours, a time that’s perfectly respectable but that won’t impress anyone, which pretty much describes me as an athlete, as well.
In the sports world, compression gear is a hot commodity. Recovery socks are getting full spreads in running magazines. NFL players are currently shrinkwrapping their brawn under compression shirts. A few years ago, NBA commissioner David Stern got his undies in a bunch when superstars like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade took to wearing tights.
The company that supplies Wade with his stockings is McDavid, Inc., one of several firms now fabricating recovery gear. About six years ago, McDavid found the world of spandex had gone slack. “It got to the point where every average Joe mowing his lawn was wearing Under Armour,” says marketing director Rey Corpuz. Working with Olympic hopefuls, McDavid created a line of products designed to both boost performance—by increasing support and the flow of oxygenated blood to the focus area—and aid in recovery, as increased circulation prevents blood from pooling and lactic acid buildup. Of course, there’s an aesthetic hurdle. When actually wearing the gear, you feel like the guy who brings cleats to the company softball game.
“I’m going to be honest, you look a bit like a douche,” my girlfriend said, as I modeled my pants and knee-high socks. “Is that really going to help you when you’re not a peak performer?” I was going to find out.
Due to a weekend wedding, I missed 11 scheduled miles of training, so I had planned a rigorous week of catch-up. Three hard days in a row had me ready when my apparel arrived on Wednesday. That night I slept in McDavid’s True Compression Recovery Pant ($75). Like Superman’s pajamas, they were cozy and gave my thighs a snug eight-hour hug.
The next day I stepped onto the treadmill like someone walking across hot coals—expecting the worst and hoping for the best. I wouldn’t say my legs felt peppy, but they weren’t sore, and I banged out four miles at a decent clip. Facing another four on Saturday, I slept in the socks and used Friday to put my legs through a gauntlet of squats, lunges and sprints, all exercises proven to rip my muscle fibers like cheap burlap.
With another night in the pants, my legs felt fine, considering. A Saturday run in the socks, minus the stares, was quite comfortable. After one last night with vacuum-sealed stems, I awoke on Sunday to face the final leg: seven miles, 90-degree heat and what seemed like a headwind at every turn.
Running in the pants was like putting new tires on a car with no fuel, as I stumbled around for an hour, pain-free but exhausted. Though there’s a sense your muscles are being pulled into action, like a puppet tugged by a string, and the stocking did provide a breezy cool I hadn’t felt since a grade-school production of Robin Hood.
The benefits are hard to quantify, as you can’t objectively measure an absence of aching or a slight increase in energy. I tend to agree with the case studies showing recovery gear decreases delayed muscle soreness but offers no real performance advantage. But what does the man on the street say?
“You’re at least a little less sore the next day,” says Will, an employee at Marathon Sports and a fellow former member of the Bates College track team. With a half-marathon time around 1:20, Will often runs in calf sleeves, but he admits, “some days your legs just feel better than others.”
“It’s probably—next to minimalist shoes—the fastest-growing market in running,” says Justin Burdon, co-owner of South End Athletic Company. A near four-minute miler while at Boston College, or as I prefer to call it, “the inferior B.C.,” Burdon refrains from compression gear. “I’m not in competition anymore, so it’s not something I really need.”
At $20-$60 just for socks, I’d pass, too. I especially wouldn’t shell out $200 for the new Saucony recovery suit, unless I wanted to complete the superhero ensemble. But with the gear already in hand, it’s going to get some use. An advantage, even minimal, even fictitious, needs to be grabbed this many miles from the finish line.