Recovery gear we love: Trigger Point's starter set and The Grid, 2XU's recovery socks and pants, the Moji360 Palm and the Tiger Tail roller. (Staff and manufacturers photos)
lactic acid myth
Despite what you may have heard, most experts now agree that delayed-onset muscle soreness — the type that strikes about a day after exercising — is not caused by a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles because lactic acid is flushed soon after your workout ends.
"One common misconception about DOMS is that it is due to lactic acid accumulation, but lactic acid is not a component of this process," says the American College of Sports Medicine.
A 2009 National Institutes of Health study explains it this way: "DOMS is associated with the eccentric phase of exercise, where the muscle is actively creating force while lengthening. The onset of muscle soreness is part of an inflammatory response due to the muscular damage caused by the exercise."
So when you go out the next day, you’re not "breaking up the lactic acid," as once commonly thought. You’re increasing blood flow, which carries away metabolic waste from the muscular damage and reduces swelling.
So you've just hammered your muscles with a brutal session of PT.
Don't kick off your shoes and assume it's over. Sometimes what you do post-workout is as important as the sweatfest you just completed. If you flop down and hit the PlayStation, you'll likely pay.
Why? Your legs are screaming the day after a hard workout because of microtrauma to the muscles, says Maj. Charles Blake, marathoner and physical therapist with Army 3rd Special Forces Group. Your body will try to repair itself with swelling, which is what leaves you stiff and sore.
The best way to lessen next-day pain is to be mindful not to cause injury in the first place.
"You run into problems as your form starts to run down," such as when you're fatigued, Blake says.
If it's already too late, then turn to the recovery staples: an ice bath, compression and massage.
Ice baths cause the blood vessels to constrict, says Army Lt. Col. Mike Ludwig, a Nurse Corps officer and ultrarunner stationed in Washington, D.C. Narrower blood vessels send less blood to the muscles, which means less swelling — and it's the swelling that causes the next-day pain, not the accumulation of metabolic waste.
Ludwig swears by his post-thrashing regimen. After an ultramarathon, he ices his legs for 10 to 15 minutes, then elevates them for another 10 to 15 minutes to further inhibit swelling. After that, the 41-year-old wears compression socks (2XU's recovery socks, next page) for the next two days. He said this routine has cut his typical recovery time from six days to two.
Swelling prevention — ice, elevation and compression — is crucial to do as soon as possible after your workout, Ludwig says.
The next day, stick with your compression gear but also look to light massage. Both further aid muscle repair by promoting increased blood flow.
"Self massage (via foam roller, the Stick, your hands ...) is used to increase blood flow," said Blake, the physical therapist, in an email.
Increased blood flow will carry away metabolic waste caused by the microtrauma. "The increase in blood flow will also bring in fresh nutrition — provided that you are properly hydrated — so recovery is based on blood flow stimulation, which is directly linked to proper hydration," Blake said.
Ludwig cautions against an aggressive, deep-tissue massage while you're still sore: "Introduce deep tissue massage too soon [and] all you are doing is causing more ‘damage' that the body has to repair."
And while you're still sore, be sure to take your downtime seriously. You're not slacking — the rest allows your muscles to repair themselves so you're at 100 percent for your next big effort. Now is the time to put your feet up and break out the video games.
New twists on old gear
Try these six recovery items to make sure you're ready to go when it matters most.
If you love ... the Stick
If you love ... your foam roller
Try The Grid. The SEAL Team 6 of foam rollers, Trigger Point Performance Therapy designed The Grid with "distrodensity zones and matrix technology." It obliterates knots and soreness and also can be used in core exercises. Its rigid center keeps it from compressing in the middle, a flaw common to rollers made entirely of foam.
Great for: Your house
$39.99 (original) and $64.99 (Grid 2.0)
If you love ... deep tissue massages
Try Moji 360 Palm. We tried the Moji 360 Palm, a 6-inch-by-2-inch mitt with seven marble-sized sphere rollers. The folks at Moji call it dynamic massage: "Omni-directional rollers break up scar tissue and mimic the strokes of a massage therapist." Because the 360 Palm is pliable, you can add or subtract pressure, turning a light massage into deep tissue work. It is great for any lingering deep knots as well as the upper back, a place the rigid and much larger Grid and Tiger Tail have a hard time getting into. The 360 Palm's compact size makes it ideal to tuck in a bag or suitcase.
Great for: Traveling
If you love ... your tennis/lacrosse ball
Try Trigger Point's starter set. Still using old (read: smelly and gross) sporting equipment to roll out your feet, glutes and lower legs? Trigger Point, maker of The Grid, also makes a handy starter set. Trigger Point's massage ball is gentler than an old lacrosse ball and still gets the job done. The knit-ish outer cover of the ball also keeps it from slipping on the floor less than a rubber-coated ball. The roller is great for obliterating knots in calves, though if you're a 6'5" guy, your calf probably won't fit in between the skateboard wheels. The best use is rolling the balls of your feet.
Great for: Leaving at your office
Kits start at $69.99; http://tptherapy.com/shop/all-tppt-products/tp-starter-set.html">www.tptherapy.com
If you love ... your compression socks
... but hate staying in sweaty muddy socks when you're done working out ...
Try 2XU's recovery socks. The socks from 2XU's Refresh line have graduated compression to promote faster muscle recovery. They make legs feel better after punishing workouts. Put these on immediately after workouts, or if you're already in active compression gear, throw these on after a shower. They are mighty tight, so be prepared to wriggle into them a little bit at a time. The toe box is made from compression-free fabric, so your thrashed toenails won't get crushed while your lower legs recover. The tightly woven knit seems like it'll hold up well through repeated wash cycles, but do these socks a favor and don't put them in the dryer.
Great for: Wearing to work the next day
If you really, really love ... your recovery compression socks
Try 2XU's recovery pants. Like the socks, these full-length pants are designed to promote better blood flow and oxygen delivery. These pants are ideal if there's a long car ride between your race-abused body and an ice bath at home. Wriggle into these (and I do mean wriggle) before you hop in the car and your legs will thank you. PT365 gear tester and former Marine Pete Josendale did just that after a March marathon. Josendale said the compression pants made his five-hour car ride significantly more bearable, and that the next day he was less sore than expected. "Tuesday, I was feeling like I was ready to run again." These pants are pricey, but I credit them for getting me through three 50k races this year with barely any post-race muscle pain.
Great for: Wearing on the way home or sleeping the night after a hard workout