In last week’s episode, I have talked about how fast should a body recover and how you can heal your body faster. Today, I will be giving you the exact recovery techniques that I personally use.
Let’s fly through a host of other recovery tactics now:
1. Stem-Cell Therapy
Stem-cell therapy certainly is a potent recovery method that flies under the radar. You’d want to reserve traditional, injectable stem-cell therapy as a last-ditch effort to, say, avoid a hip or knee replacement or to fix a joint before trading in running, lifting, or cycling for foosball.
But stem cells have incredible healing properties since they can be transformed into neurons, muscle, and several different types of connective tissue—allowing for rapid joint regeneration. In the United States, companies like ReCyte Therapeutics are on the cutting edge of developing injectable stem-cell treatments to do everything from regrowing spinal cord cells to eradicating cartilage pain.
If the idea of using stem cells doesn’t jibe with your ethics, you’ll be surprised to learn that stem cells can be harvested from sources other than human embryos, like body fat and bone marrow(16). Clinics such as the Institute of Regenerative Medicine and Orthopedics in Tampa, Florida, inject nonembryonic stem cells into injury sites that need to heal fast or to permanently fix chronic aches and pains. In fact, at this point, you are have to head to Europe or Asia if you want to be injected with stem cells from actual embryos.
Cryotherapy is a recovery method that I use nearly every day (in the form of morning and evening cold showers and many, many cold soaks in a bathtub or river). In 3 Chilling Benefits of Cold Exercise, you learned about the advantages of cold thermogenesis. The benefits of all those forms of cryotherapy include an enhanced immune system, increased cell longevity, decreased level of inflammatory molecules such as interleukin 6, and, of course, an incredible tolerance for running outdoors and doing snow angels in your underwear.
Prolotherapy fits into the same category as stem-cell therapy—it’s something to consider when you need to “bring out the big guns” because a joint or muscle injury just won’t go away.
Think of prolotherapy as “spot welding” for an ache or pain. It is the precise injection of a solution into areas where tendons and ligaments attach to bone, or into places where cartilage is worn or damaged. When a prolotherapy solution—which can be anything from hyperosmolar dextrose (basically glorified sugar water) to glycerine, lidocaine, or even cod liver oil extract—is injected, it creates a localized, controlled inflammatory response that stimulates the body’s own repair mechanisms to heal the damaged tissue.
Specifically, the inflammation from prolotherapy leads to the creation of collagen, the protein that makes up ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. This causes targeted repair to occur at the exact site of an injury and can be especially useful in areas of poor blood flow, such as cartilage or ligaments.
Whole-body-vibration (WBV) therapy, which involves standing or moving on a vibration platform. The use of a vibration platform has been shown not only to increase strength, power, and speed, but also to generate a hormonal, immune system, and anti-inflammatory response that can speed recovery.
Because there is an element of friction when you are standing on a vibration platform, you need to be careful in the early stages of healing for any ankle, knee, or hip injuries that may be irritated by the rubbing of ligaments on bone from friction (such as IT band friction syndrome). (I experimented with vibration for recovery within hours after I had sustained a knee injury from stepping the wrong way during a trail run and unfortunately found that the vibration left me reeling in pain for several hours, which probably slowed my recovery.)
But in the later stages of healing, and for any injured body part not bothered by vibration (if it hurts, don’t do it), a simple WBV platform can be a handy investment and training/recovery tool to keep in your home gym, garage, or office. You can just stand on one for a few minutes in the morning or evening or implement it into your actual workout routine. Alternatively, there are also fantastic handheld vibration devices out there such as the Myobuddy and the Theragun, both of which can achieve similar effects but in a more targeted manner for specific body parts.
Studies have shown that when you wear compression gear during a hard workout, your performance in subsequent workouts may improve—possibly because the increased blood flow from compression helps restore muscle glycogen levels and clear metabolic waste. When you wear compression gear, you may also have less muscle damage from tissue “bouncing up and down” while you exercise. If you sleep, rest, or travel wearing compression gear, you’ll find that the improved support and blood flow leave you less stiff and sore.
Although I used to find compression gear a bit annoying and time-consuming to put on for a workout or race, I do wear compression socks or tights while at my standing workstation, I sleep in compression gear after particularly tough workout days, and nearly every day I finish up my e-mails and writing while wearing a special style of graduated compression boots called NormaTec boots, which combine three massage techniques to speed the body’s normal recovery process:
Instead of using static compression (squeezing) to transport fluid out of the limbs, pulsing uses dynamic compression, which mimics the muscle pump of the legs and arms, enhancing the movement of fluid and metabolic waste out of the limbs after a workout.
Your veins and lymphatic vessels have one-way valves that prevent backflow of fluid. Using this same type of action, a gradient holds pressures to keep your body’s fluids from being forced down toward your feet by the pulsing action in proximal zones of compression boots. Because of this enhancement, this form of compression can deliver maximum pressure throughout the entire limb, and the effectiveness of the pulsing action is not diminished near the top of the limb.
Because extended static pressure can be detrimental to the body’s normal circulatory flow, sequential pulsing releases the hold pressures once they are no longer needed to prevent backflow. By distal releasing the hold pressure in each zone as soon as possible, each portion of the limb gains maximum rest time without a significant pause between compression cycles.
In addition to these space-agey recovery boots, I’ve also experimented with compression shirts to enhance posture and upper-body blood flow and recovery(29).
Although there is a relative lack of research on the therapeutic use of magnets to help in reducing pain or speeding recovery, there have been some promising studies on their use to improve nervous-tissue regeneration and wound healing. It has been theorized that magnets increase blood flow, change the migration of calcium ions, alter pH balance, and have a positive effect on hormone production and enzyme activity(29).
For example, if a magnetic field is strong enough to attract or repel ions, like sodium and chloride, in the blood, these ions may eventually encounter the walls of the blood vessels, move more rapidly, and cause an increase in tissue temperature or an increase in blood flow.
Companies such as Nikken, MagnaPower, and BodyGlove make thin, light, and flexible magnets that you can wrap around your body or easily apply with adhesive and wear while you are sleeping, exercising, or working. I must admit that aside from occasional experimentation with small adhesive magnets and magnetic wraps for tennis elbow and a sore knee, magnets have not been a huge part of my own recovery routine, but many folks swear by slapping them on an injured joint or wrapping sore muscles with a magnetic wrap—and I’m not going to argue with as much anecdotal evidence as I’ve seen.
If you’ve been to an Ironman event recently or watched the Olympics, you may have noticed brightly colored strips of tape on athletes’ shoulders, hips, knees, or lower legs. Manufacturers of this tape, such as RockTape and SpiderTech, claim that, unlike traditional athletic tape, kinesiotape increases fluid drainage by creating special channels in the skin and may alter joint motion through the elastic tension applied to the tape. It supposedly lifts the skin away from the muscle, which is supposed to increase blood flow and lymph drainage.
I’ve seen little quality evidence to support the use of kinesiotape over other types of traditional taping in the management or prevention of injuries, but one advantage of this type of tape is that it is more flexible and easier to apply. If you find that kinesiotape works for you, it’s probably not from any mechanical influence on joint motion, but rather from a tactile stimulation of the skin that may make you more aware of how you’re moving a body part so you can slightly override some pain sensations.
Similar to magnets, kinesiotape is one of those recovery tools that requires you to be your own guinea pig to see if you notice a difference.
8. Foam Roller
Deep-tissue massage and trigger-point therapy are the only true ways to remove knots from your muscles, and having a good foam roller around keeps you from having to schedule a massage after every workout. Stretching after a workout makes knots in your muscles tighter (in the same way that if you tie a knot in a rubber band and pull the ends of the rubber band, the knot gets tighter).
So save your stretching for after deep-tissue and mobility work with a foam roller (or lacrosse ball, tennis ball, golf ball, etc.), which actually encourages release of the muscle knots. Your workout recovery order should ideally be foam rolling, exercise, foam rolling, and stretching.
The only problem with a foam roller is that it doesn’t fit too well into a carry-on, a suitcase, or even a gym bag. This is why you need a portable deep-tissue massage device, such as the Muscletrac, Myoroller, or Tiger Tail. While it’s difficult to get as deep with these sticks as you can when pressing your entire body weight into a foam roller, they can do the trick on calves, forearms, neck, and hips.
9. Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)
While EMS devices, such as the Compex Sport Elite can help build strength, they can also keep a muscle fit when you are rehabbing from an injury: You can, say, do an electrostimulation strength set for your quads if you have injured your feet and can’t do lower-body exercise, or for your pecs if you have injured your shoulders and can’t press or do push-ups. EMS increases blood flow to the area of damaged muscle tissue. You simply place the electrodes over the area that needs enhanced blood flow, and the electrical current causes a muscle contraction that results in heat and blood flow. At BenGreenfieldFitness.com/marc, you can read about the MarcPro, a device that uses a specific waveform of electricity, which “gradually” grabs muscle fibers in a very gentle way, making it ideal for recovery and injuries, compared with other EMS devices that are primarily best for maintaining fitness in a muscle or building strength, muscular endurance, or power.
I’ve found that for sore muscles, almost nothing beats electrostimulation combined with pressure and ice. This icy e-stim treat is pretty simple to do. You just attach the electrodes on the affected area, place an ice pack over them, and then flip the switch for twenty to thirty minutes. You can also apply a topical treatment such as magnesium and use the EMS to drive that ointment deeper into the tissue.
By the way, it’s crucial to place the electrodes accurately, so make sure that you know your anatomy. Most EMS devices come with instructions.
10. Cold Laser
Low-level laser therapy (LLLT), also known as cold laser, is more common in Europe than in the States but is growing in popularity among physical therapists and alternative medical practitioners everywhere. This treatment uses a special kind of laser called a light-emitting diode to reduce pain related to inflammation. It is effective for tendinitis, arthritis, and both acute and chronic pain, and it can lower levels of pain-producing chemicals, such as prostaglandins and interleukin, while decreasing oxidative stress from free radicals, bruises, swelling, and bleeding.
While a good cold-laser device costs several thousand dollars and is typically available only at a professional clinic, you can achieve some benefit with a handheld wand that costs between $100 and $500. You simply hold or gently move the wand over the area of damaged tissue for five to twenty minutes.
Far-infrared light is radiant and thermal, like the type of heat we get from sunlight or from cold-laser therapy. Radiant heat is a form of energy that heats objects directly through a process called conversion, without having to heat the air. Exposing the body to infrared light has been shown to raise white blood cell count and enhance immunity, and also to heat tissue and increase blood flow to injured or recovering muscles(15).
In an infrared sauna, ceramic or metallic elements are used to emit energy. Unlike in a regular sauna or steam room, this energy penetrates the skin and heats from the inside as well as outside the skin, so the heat penetrates deeper. One drawback to most home infrared saunas is that they can produce unhealthful electromagnetic fields (EMFs), which you’ll learn more about in the lifestyle section of this book. But there is a type of infrared sauna that uses infrared heat lamps. These actually produce “near-infrared” energy, which penetrates the body even deeper than far-infrared without producing any detectable EMF. I built a low-EMF infrared sauna in my basement gym and use it nearly every day for heat acclimation, building blood volume and new red blood cells, recovery, and detoxification. You can find the exact instructions for how I designed this sauna at BenGreenfieldFitness.com/hackedsauna.
As with cold-laser wands, handheld infrared wands are available, but more sophisticated infrared devices are becoming more common. For example, I know several athletes who swear by sleeping or resting on a far-infrared mat, like the one from BioMat. A BioMat mattress will set you back several thousand dollars, but it beats the pants off a grounding or earthing mat for reasons you’ll understand in just a moment. BioMat is the only company that makes these; you can check them out at BeyondTrainingBook.com/biomat.
12. Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF)
PEMF uses electrical energy to direct a series of magnetic pulses through injured tissue. The tiny electrical signal from each pulse stimulates cellular repair by upregulating a tissue-repair protein called “heat-shock protein” and increases the uptake of oxygen and nutrients into tissue. Tons of studies have shown PEMF to be effective in healing soft-tissue wounds, reducing inflammation, decreasing pain, and increasing range of motion. By stimulating ATP production through a process called myosin phosphorylation, PEMF can also decrease the amount of time it takes to replenish energy stores after a workout. PEMF may also accelerate bone repair, which can come in handy if you have a stress fracture or broken bone.
Several PEMF devices are available for consumer use. For example, I own a small doughnut-shaped device from EarthPulse and another one for sleep called the DeltaSleeper. Similar to cold-laser or far-infrared wands, PEMF can be held or moved slightly over an area of damaged tissue or healing bone for ten to thirty minutes. Interestingly, the magnetic signal released by a PEMF device is very similar to that released by grounding or earthing mats, which professional cycling teams have used during the Tour de France to enhance both sleep and recovery for more than a decade. But unlike these mats, a PEMF device does not need to use a three-pronged plug to be plugged into an outlet and grounded—so it actually exposes you to less electrical pollution.
Hanging upside down like a bat may not seem like a stress-relieving or relaxing activity, but, as I mentioned earlier, I hang from an inversion table in my garage for five to ten minutes several times a week, especially after a long bike ride or run, and the “drainage” effect is amazing. Heavy, swollen feet and legs almost instantly become lighter and less swollen—and it feels great to hang after a long day of standing at my workstation. Inversion has been shown to assist with lymphatic fluid circulation, back pain, blood flow and circulation, and spinal or hip misalignment from high-impact workouts, and the use of an inversion table actually lengthens the spine and mobilizes the hips. Although it can achieve some of the same results, sitting with your legs inverted against a wall or doing a yoga inversion pose just does not accomplish the same gravitational pull and full body traction as an inversion table.
You can usually find good deals on inversion tables on eBay or Craigslist because people discover that hanging upside down like a bat isn’t the cure-all they thought it would be. Another fun way to invert is via the use of a yoga trapeze.
Of course, you don’t have to have an inversion table to invert. For example, after a long run, you can just elevate your legs above your head by propping yourself against a wall—and keep those legs elevated for at least one minute for every mile you’ve run. Another option is yoga inversions like the plow pose, a supported shoulder stand, a supported headstand, or if you dare, the feathered peacock pose (Google any of these inversion poses to see what they look like).
So that’s it.
While this may seem like a dizzying array of ways you can recover, you can definitely start simple. For example, after your next workout, try one of the simplest recovery techniques you’ve just discovered: inversion. After cooling down, lay on your back, feet up against a wall, for about five minutes. Not only will you reactivate your “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system, but you’ll also recover far faster as blood and metabolic byproducts make their way out of your legs.