My final rep was a failure. As I crumpled on the bench of my home gym, I raised the Garmin Fenix 5 that was strapped to my wrist and flipped through the data. My VO max had gone into the purple “superior” section and, on the next screen, my recommended recovery time until my next workout had risen from one day to two. I’d achieved my goal: to push myself hard enough to have technology bestow upon me another rest day.
The idea of recovery has evolved rapidly. It used to be that, after a workout, you’d simply ice, rest and hydrate. In essence, you’d let your body take care of itself. But these days, trainers are pushing for a far more active approach.
“Early in my career, I focused all of my attention on training,” says strength coach Joe DeFranco, host of the Industrial Strength Show podcast. “Now, when I get a new client, I map out recovery strategies first, because I realised that a workout is only effective if the athlete is able to adequately recover from it.”
You can credit the original Fitbit – which monitored two key recovery markers, sleep duration and quality – for raising awareness of this reality. Now, gyms geared entirely for post-exercise R&R have begun to pop up in London. The value of the recovery drinks market is expected to grow by 6.2% annually from 2018 to 2023, according to an industry report. And companies are marketing gadgets that claim to improve rest between workouts.
I was sceptical of these gizmos. To me, they were expensive short cuts to wellness. But as a man in my forties with two kids who lifts almost every day, plays tennis and swims, while travelling for my job and habitually overworking, I’ve begun to feel more pain. I know what my body is trying to tell me, but maybe these products could help me grow stronger, sleep better and feel more energised?
It was worth a shot. So I began to incorporate more than £4,000 of wellness gadgetry into my life – starting with my bedroom. It’s 8pm, and my Oura Ring tells me: “Bedtime’s approaching. If you want to prepare yourself for good-quality sleep, now’s the time to start winding down your body and mind.” When I’m in bed, it keeps track of my body temperature, movement, breathing, deep sleep, REM sleep, heart rate and more, giving mea report on the effects of my other sleep-centric recovery tools.
I adjust my Ooler Sleep System Mattress Pad to 13°C. I slip into my Under Armour Recovery Sleepwear and don my Under Armour Tuned Recovery Glimpse glasses , which block out blue light. My daughters, both now the colour of Smurfs, roll their eyes at me. I lie down on the Helix Dawn Luxe mattress , which feels pleasantly cool, likely due to technology that encourages air to circulate through its layers. Spread over the mattress are Molecule percale sheets , made from the type of cooling wicking materials you might find in a workout T-shirt. A Gravity Blanket locks me into place for a restful night of sleep. It feels sort of like those weighted aprons you wear when you get a dental X-ray.
Sleep-recovery products tend to fall into two camps: those that cool you down and those that power you down. Research shows that a cool environment between 15.5°C and 19.4°C helps you fall asleep faster and achieve deeper sleep, an effect attributed to your body’s circadian rhythms. And those blue-tinted glasses are designed to protect your eyes from the blue light emitted by devices, which can disrupt a good night’s rest.
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Some of the products had little to no effect. For example, the recovery pyjamas, though comfortable, felt no different from the PJs I normally wear and provided no measurable benefit. My Tuned Recovery Glimpse glasses, which turned my children into Smurfs, just felt silly.
But many of these products did help my sleep. After three weeks, my Oura reported that I had slept eight to nine hours at least six nights a week. I was less “awake” during sleeping hours, and my heart rate, normally about 52bpm when sleeping, fell to 48bpm.
With my new-found energy from a better night’s rest, and armed with the Garmin, I started tackling my workouts with renewed vigour. Which is how I came to own a gun.
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The “percussive massage device” looks like a high-end drill, except that the bit is a hard, rubber disc that tenderises sore muscles. There is science showing that this type of device works. A 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research found that those who underwent five minutes of vibration therapy had significantly less muscle soreness when compared with a control group. Sure enough, after using the Hypervolt on the left side of my body, it felt less sore than the right side and far less sore than it would be after my usual five to 10 minutes of foam rolling. The Theragun G3Pro is louder but holds a charge longer. The Recoup Cryosphere stays cold for up to six hours and adds ice to the benefits of massage with a lacrosse ball. And the less brutal CTM Band is an exercise band with soreness-soothing nodules along its length.
On the days I used these, my Fenix reported that I could return to exercising faster. And my Oura told me I was moving less at night, which may have been a result of my reduced soreness. But I was also beginning to feel overburdened by the devices. All this recovery was, frankly, starting to wear on me.
The Bottom Line
These tools aren’t the last steps towards better health. They are the first. They didn’t always lead to dramatic results, but they did increase my understanding of recovery. The spectre of the Fenix’s data motivated me to work harder in the gym, and the Hypervolt pushed me to rest better for the sake of the Oura data. The more I repeated this, the stronger I grew.
There’s also a downside: you can become obsessive. I found myself assessing how I felt by the data my devices presented, instead of by how I actually felt. That’s not right. Though I’m grateful that my month as a recovery lab rat helped me start the process of taking care of myself, I’m sure I can take it from here.
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