Be honest: Are the five minutes you spend stretching after a tough workout really aiding your recovery? Probably not. But if you’re looking to help speed up recovery to maximize your results, you may be interested to find out about recovery centers.
What’s a Sports Recovery Center?
These centers are popping up around the country, bringing to everyday exercisers all the fancy recovery equipment that used to be reserved for pro athletes. Most offer tools you can use on your own, such as foam rollers, ice baths and compression boots, as well as on-site specialists like chiropractors and acupuncturists to iron out whatever feels tight.
Many offer monthly memberships — which is great if you’re a CrossFitter constantly putting your body through the ringer. Or you could do a day pass if you’re just looking to do some serious stretching after a big race or are simply curious about the concept.
The idea is that by taking the time to properly recover, soreness will pass more quickly and your risk of injury will be slashed. But does a casual exerciser really need to invest the time and money in recovery centers? Here’s what to know about the growing trend.
How Recovery Impacts Your Performance
When gearing up for a race, runners spend most of their time choosing the right training and nutrition plans and researching the perfect pair of race-day shoes. But most don’t think about recovery, says Liz Yerly, founder of Chicago Recovery Room. That’s a mistake. “Your improvements happen when you rest, so you’re only as good as you recover,” she says.
Before opening Chicago Recovery Room in 2013, Yerly worked as a physical therapist and spent her days seeing patients who were already battling an injury. That got her thinking: What if she could help these athletes before they got hurt?
The secret, she figured, could be in placing an emphasis on recovering properly. “It helps them stay off the injury bus,” Yerly says. Plus, it can impact performance. “The faster you can recover, the faster you can train again, and the more you train, the bigger, faster and better you will be,” says John-Paul Rue, M.D., an orthopedics and sports medicine doctor with the Orthopedic Specialty Hospital at Mercy Medical Center.
The Science Behind Proper Recovery
The goal of recovery is to get your body back to its baseline, Rue says. Recovery centers stock their facilities with the tools and services to help you get there. But do they really make a difference? Plenty of studies suggest they do, though Rue cautions there could be a high placebo effect in play, “meaning that we might get some subjective improvement or feel better even if they don’t actually do anything,” he says.
Let’s take a look at what’s been proven to help. Massage therapy, for instance, can help reduce inflammation, according to a 2012 study published in Science Translational Medicine. And when it’s combined with pneumatic compression therapy (e.g., compression boots) for 20 minutes following a race, it makes the muscles feel less tired, finds a 2016 study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy.
Compression garments can also aid in recovery. A 2015 review published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that while they don’t do much during exercise itself, they can help during the recovery process when worn on the lower limbs.
Still, you should choose your recovery methods wisely, since not all have science to back them up. Ice baths, for example, have been shown to reduce strength gains, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Physiology.
Once you find the tools that work for you, visit as often and for as long as your body finds helpful. “Some people only come on Saturdays after a long run, others come once a year after the marathon and others come more frequently because they’re demanding more from their bodies,” Yerly says.
As a result, you may be ready to tackle your next workout sooner. Some recovery centers claim they can cut recovery time from a few days to one hour. “If we define [recovery] subjectively — for example we feel rested and don’t have pain — then I think that is certainly a valid claim,” Rue says.
Cutting down on the time you usually spend hobbling around after a tough workout or a long run has more practical benefits too. It helps you get back to the rest of your life faster, whether that means playing with your kids in the yard or commuting to work without pain.
Are Recovery Centers Worth It?
Whether recovery centers are worth your time and money depends on whom you ask. Recovery centers have plenty of success stories to share, such as a Chicago Recovery Room athlete who dropped 30 minutes from her marathon time. She said the recovery techniques there allowed her to do the higher-level training she needed to set a personal record, Yerly says.
Others view the centers as a luxury, not a necessity. “I equate it to any other piece of sports equipment,” Rue says. “For the vast majority of us, as weekend-warrior athletes, we probably don’t need the high-end equipment, and it won’t make us an elite athlete.” Though it might make you feel like one, he adds.
The old-fashioned approach — rest, ice, stretching and sipping chocolate milk — may be just as beneficial, Rue says. But what matters most is how your body feels. “I think the bottom line with all of the recovery methods is that if you feel better and more rested and have less pain, then that’s a good thing,” Rue says. “And if that allows you to train more frequently or at a higher level, then the treatments may be worth your time.”