On the mend: Inside the rapid recovery tech that keeps NFL players game-ready

Professional athletes use the many tools available to them these days to stay on top of their game. Most NFL players have their own nutritionists, personal trainers, and life coaches. But they also have access to the best, top-of-the-line technology, not only to help them get ahead on the scoreboard, but to recover after repeated tackles by 300-pound linemen.

“Marginal gains separate those who get the outcome they want and those who don’t,” said Dr. Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist. “Technology has been an important part of creating the competitive advantage.”

Technology in the sports medicine field hasn’t been around for long. Before cryotherapy, electrostimulation pads, and infrared saunas, athletes were simply told to stretch, hydrate, and elevate.

Needless to say, a lot has changed since then.

Football players used to retire in their 20s, whereas today we have players like Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri who are still going well into their 40s. How? Physicians, researchers, and players themselves have invested in the importance of recovery — how to monitor it, how to access it, and how to achieve it quicker than ever.

“The tenure in the NFL is below three years,” said Gervais. “So if you could double, triple, quadruple that by taking care of your body in the right way by recovering intelligently, not only does it add to the performance advances on the field, but you’re also adding to the ability to explore your own potential inside the sport that you love.”

Pneumatic compression suits

Hyperice

The one pneumatic compression suit athletes carry alongside their Louis Vuittion cargo bags on game day is Normatec. Suits like Normatec are essentially compression massage devices, where users slide their arms, legs, or body into a sleeve that inflates with air, then pulses in a series of patterns with varying intensity within five unique chambers. The process is “designed to decrease soreness and bring oxygenation throughout the body” according to Gervais, who is also a performance advisor for Hyperice, which acquired Normatec last March.

It’s more than simply mimicking a massage, though. The compression is designed to minimize muscle fatigue and decrease lactate buildup, in turn increasing mobility. The sensation can feel like a really good stretch, and some NFL players use it to warm up before training, cool down after a game, or both.

When compression suits first came on the field, they were “widely adopted by athletes and then the scientists wanted to figure out why they were so interested in it,” said Gervais, who’s been working with the Seattle Seahawks for nearly a decade.

Hyperice

What athletes liked about Normatec off the bat was its ability to create an “accelerated, dynamic warm-up” while also reducing stiffness post training. This made Normatec “a staple in most professional locker rooms,” according to Gervais.

And that’s the thing: Overtraining and under-recovery are among the biggest issues plaguing not only NFL players, but average athletes like runners and cyclists.

“This kind of technology, used alongside other technologies and hydration and nutrition, can dramatically impact and extend the life cycle of an athlete.” Gervais said.

Electrostimulation pads

What professional athletes love most about the electrostimulation pad, or electric muscle stimulation (EMS), is that it has the potential to provide recovery without additional activity, like cooling down on the elliptical or spending 20 minutes stretching or doing calf raises. If used before training, it gets the muscles ready to take on stress, almost like a warm-up session.

“Specific types of stimulation have the potential to make workouts more efficient,” said Rick Rowan, founder and CEO of NuroKor, a startup based in the U.K. that’s focused on bioelectric technology. The company’s roster currently includes more than 40 Olympians and elite athletes.

“Depending on the setting, and wave formation, it’s like having a gentle massage.”

Device makers like NuroKor use “peripheral nerve, microcurrent ,and neuromuscular stimulation” to help athletes (and those who have chronic pain) reduce inflammation and soreness, and to expedite recovery. Some studies have found this to be true, too. When tested on team sports players, EMS “significantly lowered” perceived soreness and players found the device easy to use while sleeping or traveling.

EMS devices are usually small and handheld, with wires connected to pads you can attach to skin. Some, like NuroKor’s, have presets for recovery, where the electric or microcurrent frequency is low and sometimes doesn’t cause any sort of spasm sensation.

“Depending on the setting, and wave formation, it’s like having a gentle massage,” Rowan said. “If you turn the setting up, the contractions become stronger.”

Rowan recommends athletes use EMS on large muscle groups after exercise to encourage circulation and blood flow, as well as to allow muscle fibers to train and fire without stress or strain. This is what helps build strength and encourages continued stimulation post-workout. And the convenience of EMS technology is what makes it efficient, too.

“The beauty of it is that it can be used with other recovery tools,” he said.

Massage guns

Massage guns offer what is known as “vibration therapy,” targeting specific muscles and hammering them with high-speed punches either before or following strenuous activity.

Massage guns like Hyperice’s Hypervolt and the popular Theragun have a range of frequencies (how many percussions are delivered per minute), as well as depths (to target deep tissue muscles), and come with customizable attachments and massage heads for hard-to-reach areas. And because massage guns provide rapid bursts of pressure, they also generate heat, engaging the nervous system and aiding the recovery and warm-up process. You may have seen slow-motion videos of massage guns on social media, as they often simulate a wave, or ripple, effect on the skin’s surface.

As opposed to ice baths, which numb an area and limit blood flow, percussive tools like massage guns stimulate muscles, providing them with ample amounts of oxygen to release tension. Once oxygen flows freely, much-needed nutrients are able to rush in and provide relief to sore muscles.

Dozens of studies have been done on the effectiveness of massage guns and vibration therapy, with the results being largely positive and validating for the athletes that routinely use them for recovery. One study reported that its participants’ muscle soreness was “significantly less” after using a combination of vibration and massage therapy.

According to Gervais, not only does vibration therapy yield enhanced elasticity and greater recovery in a shorter amount of time, it can also have a positive psychological benefit for athletes.

“The instant feeling of release and recovery and relaxation that takes place is a powerful motivator and provides immediate value,” he said.

Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is beloved by not only NFL players (the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs have cryo chambers in their fitness centers), but celebrities and other professional athletes like Lebron James and Cristiano Ronaldo.

And the process is fairly simple, and quick: An athlete jumps in an individual-sized tube that’s open at the top to keep their head at room temperature. They can either go in dressed, or with their underwear on, but are required to wear special layers of socks and mittens to protect extremities. They are then blasted with liquid nitrogen and refrigerated cold air, reaching a temperature of -130 degrees Celsius, for less than three minutes, pivoting every 10 to 20 seconds.

Cryotherapy has been widely adopted in sports medicine, and enthusiasts swear by the technique’s therapeutic benefits, saying it has the ability to dramatically speed up recovery time and heal injuries.

Researchers are divided. Some have said the risks outweigh possible benefits. And in some cases, pro athletes like Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown have suffered frostbite due to not wearing the proper attire.

Regardless, NFL players are hooked.

“Athletes are always looking for an edge since they are already so good at their craft,” said Michael Conlon, a physical therapist at Finish Line Physical Therapy in New York City. “If you can get circulation to flow through your body at a quicker rate, that allows you to recover faster and ultimately perform better.”

One study published in 2017 found that cryotherapy enhanced “anti-inflammatory and antioxidant barriers,” and found it effective to “counteract harmful stimuli” like increased strain.

By forcing one’s body into extreme cold temperatures for a brief amount of time, the body is then tricked into vasoconstriction — the tightening of blood vessels. Blood is then rushed to protect the vital organs while the body temperature lowers. After the three minutes in the chamber are over, your brain realizes it is not “freezing to death,” then hurries and sends more “enriched blood and oxygen” circulation to the affected muscles, accelerating recovery, Conlon said.

Fitness trackers

Anyone with an Apple Watch or a FitBit will tell you they have a fitness tracker. But other offerings, like Whoop’s fitness tracker, are next level.

It gathers all kinds of data just from your wrist 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Last year, the company partnered with the National Football League Players Association to give all players a Whoop fitness tracker.

Kristen Holmes, Whoop’s vice president of performance science, said what makes the company’s fitness tracker stand out above the rest is that it’s simple. The device is lightweight and attached with a fabric band. There’s no interactive touchscreen interface or anything else.

“It’s not beeping at you all day long,” she said. “It’s passively collecting data just for you, to help you understand how your body is responding and adapting to external stress.”

whoop fitness tracker
Whoop/Twitter

It doesn’t have to be taken off to charge, and is both waterproof and sweatproof. It’s powerful sensors measure motion, sleep, and heart rate variability at a rate of 52 hertz per second — this means the device is collecting 52 data points every second.

All information is then processed in the cloud and broken down into visualizations and charts within the Whoop app. The data is then able to give users a clear image in real time of when they are ready to take on strain, when they need to rest or meditate, and exactly how much sleep they need to get back to 100%. It’s more detailed than this article would ever be able to describe.

This is the best tool Holmes believes is available to athletes everywhere: Knowledge of their own bodies — and their own limits. By showing players data that reflects their behaviors, they are then able to make more informed decisions and adjust to achieve better recovery.

And even with all the latest technology and gadgets that have come out in the last decade to aid athletes before game day, Holmes still believes there’s nothing better than hitting the hay to prepare for peak performance.

“I think we’ve kind of reverted back to like, ‘Alright, let’s get the foundation right’ in that we need to be able to understand our sleep architecture,” she said. “We can’t possibly recover in an optimal way if we’re not getting the sleep that we need. We really actually have no chance of recovering because that’s the only time you are repairing tissue and regenerating muscle. Sleep has become the greatest legal performance enhancer.”

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