For anyone who has ever lifted heavy, run long, or returned after a long layoff, aching arms and tender thighs are all too familiar. But they are actually good things. “Muscle soreness is a sign that your muscles are repairing themselves after a challenging activity,” says Snehal Patel, P.T., a clinical supervisor at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. The problem is that soreness not only hurts, but also limits your ability to get back at it the next day. That’s where active recovery comes in. “Sitting around after a big workout can make you even more sore,” Patel says. “Yet focusing on recovery helps speed up healing so you can be ready to go again.”
But recovery can also extend the quality of your fitness program. “Active recovery helps you get to your next workout faster,” says Christi Marraccini, training manager for fitness studio Tone House in New York. “It also helps preserve muscles and reduces your risk of injury.” Lately, a new generation of tools backed by research studies are drawing attention to help boost the recovery process. Here’s what can help you get to full strength.
While not exactly new (as part of traditional Chinese medicine, it has been around for thousands of years), cupping moved into the mainstream shortly after the 2016 Olympic Games, when athletes like Michael Phelps began to show up with purple welts on their back following cupping therapy sessions.
The NormaTec inflatable boots pump compressed air, zone by zone, around your legs, pulsing and releasing it to mobilize fluid. “They help flush the by-products that can cause extreme soreness out of the extremities and speed the recovery process,” Patel says. Several studies back the claim that the boots can help speed recovery, reducing pain and increasing blood flow and range of motion. The pumps are expensive (starting at $1,495; normatecrecovery.com), but you can find them at training facilities and physical therapy centers.
The Joovv Light emits red and near infrared (NIR) light waves, which have been shown to induce several metabolic actions when they penetrate the skin, including stimulating the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the energy source that powers muscles. There’s also some evidence that the red and NIR light can help improve muscle function, strength, and performance and help athletes heal faster while preventing muscle fatigue and soreness. Colleges, training facilities for the NFL and MLB, and CrossFit and other specialty studios are increasingly adding the light therapy to their recovery offerings. You can also find a home version, which retails from $595 to $2,995 at joovv.com.
Good vibes really do seem to make a difference, at least according to a few new products touting high-frequency vibration as a way to enhance recovery. Even massage tools are getting the vibration overhaul. The Hypersphere ball ($149; hyperice.com) (1) and the TriggerPoint Grid Vibe ($100; tptherapy.com) (2) both feature built-in electronic vibration technology to add an edge to your regular rollout. Or consider the Theragun ($600; theragun.com) (3), a durable handheld device that pulses to help loosen uptight muscles and decrease lactic acid with gentle yet effective thumps. Used by pro hockey and football stars, Theragun offers sweet relief post-workout.
“These vibration therapies are designed to get under your skin, helping the metabolites move around and reducing soreness, much like a very vigorous massage,” Patel says. Although there’s some evidence they can help increase range of motion and minimize soreness after exercise, he cautions that some vibration therapies can feel painful, especially in the immediate aftermath of an endurance event like a marathon—so you might want to hold off for a couple of days post-race before trying it.