Could recovering from the strains of the gym or the playing field be as easy as flicking a switch on an electronic device?
Readers old enough to remember The Victor comic in the 1960s will recall the character Alf Tupper, aka ‘The Tough of the Track’, who would compete in international athletics events – and invariably win – despite a late shift at the factory. His ‘recovery programme’ consisted of ploughing through a large helping of fish and chips washed down with a few pints of bitter.Things have moved on a tad since those heady days, and 21st-century athletes have a whole host of options for assisting with recovery from competition and injury, none of which are likely to include fried food or beer.
At the most ‘basic’ level are Hyperice’s ergonomically designed compression wraps for various parts of the body, which combine with an ice cell that uses an ultra-thin skin and an air release valve to allow for optimal compression.
Combining compression and icing assists with exercise and/or injury recovery. However, as someone who has on many occasions tried to use the recommended ‘RICE’ (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) treatment for injuries, I know how difficult it can be to get the ice and compression part of the equation to come together effectively. If you’ve ever tried compressing a bag of frozen peas onto a swollen knee at the same time as keeping your leg raised you’ll know what I mean.
Hyperice’s compression wraps overcome this problem and work effectively. They also encourage regular use due to the ease of application compared with the frozen pea option.
Electrostimulation is used to enhance recovery after exhaustive exercise in the Veinoplus Sport device manufactured by Parisian company Ad Rem Technology. The device splits the difference between active recovery (electrostimulation) and passive recovery (rest).
Ad Rem claims this provides a shortcut to the benefits of active recovery whilst allowing you to enjoy the benefits of passive recovery: in other words you can use the device at the same time as relaxing and watching TV.
A similar innovation is the ‘Firefly’, a small electronic device designed to accelerate recovery of the muscles in the lower leg and knee after strenuous exercise or minor injury. The Firefly is portable, so it can be taken to sports events and on travels. It’s worn behind the knee and delivers painless electrical impulses to gently activate the muscles of the lower leg to increase blood circulation.
The device is one-size-fits-all and offers apparent sports recovery benefits, including the reduction of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that commonly occurs within 24 hours of high intensity exercise, aiding recovery from sprains or strains and reducing swelling following an injury.
A number of professional athletes, including the London Irish rugby union team, British Basketball and Widnes Vikings rugby league team, use the Firefly. I spoke to the Team GB and World Cup Ski Cross athlete Emily Sarsfield, who said: “The Firefly is a useful recovery tool as it’s so small I can easily carry it with me, and I find it helps to get rid of lactic acid and toxin build up in my leg muscles after events.
“I’ve also used it to help with recovery from knee injuries – after a bad knee ligament injury five years ago I use the Firefly to help relieve the constant niggles I still get from that.”
This is seemingly similar to how the Veinoplus Sport is used, which involves placing two electrodes on the lower leg that emit low frequency, low intensity impulses to the calf muscles. The maker, Ad Rem, says these work like ‘second hearts’ to increase blood flow and push nutrients and oxygen to the muscles.
Since this is done whilst static, the athlete is consuming less oxygen and energy than they would during the traditional active recovery process of a ‘cool down’ lap and suchlike, which could further aid recovery.
Athletes can also apply the electrodes to specific muscles used in their sport to decrease soreness and prevent cramps. The device uses only two electrodes (unlike competing products, which use four), so is easier to travel with and use immediately after competing or training, says Ad Rem.
A study by INSEP, France’s National Institute of Sport and Physical Education, found that compared with passive recovery, the Veinoplus Sport improved anaerobic performance in a group of 26 professional soccer players, concluding that such technology could be beneficial for “athletes engaged in sports with successive rounds interspersed with short, passive recovery periods”.
A slightly more high-tech recovery method, and one of the latest devices to hit the market, is the EMPpad Omnium1, an Android tablet that powers a ‘pad’ on which the athlete lies to receive a pulsed magnetic field. It is claimed it can speed up muscle tissue recovery and assist with injury healing.
The EMPpad Omnium1 is based on technology developed by Nasa, and is said to be backed by scientists, medical practitioners and a growing number of professional sportspeople worldwide. It has received FDA approval in the US.
EMPpad claims that the product helps to enhance sporting performance, reduce recovery time after exercise or injury, reduce stress and promote better sleep, all from just eight minutes of daily use over a period of a few weeks – but at a price: it retails at £2,249.
The system combines Nasa-developed pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) technology with an Android tablet that offers all the usual facilities of emailing, Wi-Fi, Internet access and so on. Using a specially designed battery, it sends electromagnetic pulses through the body via an attached pad. Research claims that the PEMF technology featured within the EMPpad Omnium1 can help to speed up muscle tissue recovery by inducing heat stress protein (hsp) expression. Heat stress proteins are produced by cells in response to exposure to stressful conditions, and are so-called because they were first described in relation to heat shock, but they are now known to also be expressed during other stresses including exposure to cold, UV light and during wound healing or tissue remodelling.
Research is also said to show that PEMF therapy can help to stimulate endorphins to provide natural pain relief and can reduce inflammation, improving injury recovery time. Apparently, improved healing of bone fractures and improved repair and regeneration of bone and cartilage tissue has also been demonstrated, reducing recovery time from injuries such as stress fractures and impact trauma.
The manufacturers say that the additional benefits of using the device every day include the altering of stress responses in the body by acting directly on the nervous and endocrine systems, and improved sleep as a result of the stimulation of the hypothalamus, which controls circadian and sleep rhythms.
However, the wide-ranging benefits of the EMPpad system are disputed by some medical professionals, such as Dr Brian MacDonald, rheumatologist and CEO of Merganser Biotech. “There are certainly a lot of studies looking at the cellular effects of electromagnetic fields that raise speculation of potential beneficial effects Knowing an effect on heat shock proteins is really proof of nothing at all though.
“There are also quite of lot of clinical studies testing the use of this modality in various ailments. This is better than studies on cells but clinical trials come in many different forms, not all of which are useful and some of which can be misleading. Some of the cited studies are double-blind, placebo controlled but most of them are small and underpowered, so the results are not strong. Also I expect there is a degree of unblinding in most of them because someone has to set the machine to be at an active or an inactive strength, and it’s hard to do studies like this without introducing bias.
“It seems possible that some of these studies in tissue repair may be on to something, with preliminary positive results, but nothing is conclusively proven yet. It seems wholly unreasonable to conflate all of this early and somewhat speculative science into a conclusion that lying on a mat for eight minutes a day will provide all of these health benefits. There is absolutely no proof that this will happen.”
MacDonald then adds: “as with all interventions there is risk as well as benefit. The biggest risk here is financial: this is a high price to pay for an unproven technology.”
Either way, whether you choose the cheap and simple option of compression wraps or the expensive, high-tech option of PEMF technology, it’s all a far cry from Alf Tupper’s day.