Do Compression Boots Actually Do Anything?

If you’ve been a fan of CrossFit for some time, there’s a good chance you’ve seen someone like Annie Thorisdottir or Noah Ohlsen lounging on a chair in a pair of enormous, electric trousers. Of all the unusual recovery methods that cutting edge athletes experiment with — cryotherapy, infrared saunas, high altitude sleep chambers — these puffy pants rank among the most bizarre looking.

So what are they, why are they used, and is there actually any data supporting their use (and their price tag of up to $2,000)? We’re taking a closer look at intermittent pneumatic compression.

What Is Intermittent Pneumatic Compression?

That’s technically what it’s called, though it also gets names like “gradient compression garments,” “peristaltic pulse technology,” “dynamic pneumatic compression,” or simply “compression therapy.” While Normatec is one of the best known manufacturers of this equipment (particularly among functional fitness athletes), there are a lot of other companies that compete with them like Revita Pumps and Air Relax.

Here’s what happens. You have a tough workout and afterward you strap yourself into one of these big recovery pants, which can actually be placed on the arms or the hips as well. Then you take the control panel and initiate the “peristaltic pulses,” made by air entering various chambers of the pants and intended to mimic the muscle pump of the legs. (Or arms, or whatever.) This lets the lymphatic and cardiovascular systems accelerate the removal of metabolic waste, which is meant to speed recovery and filter the lactic acid out of the system.

This technology has been around for a while, but traditionally has been used to treat conditions like deep vein thrombosis. Today, they’re so popular that the U.S. Olympic team has bought dozens of them and the manufacturers make explicit statements that they can improve PRs and speed recovery. What’s the science say?

[Read more: 7 strategies to improve recovery and adapt from hard training.]

Does Peristaltic Pulse Technology Work?

“When we’re talking about flushing the legs, it means the veins are pumping blood back to the heart, so these devices are doing the work of the muscles — it’s basically a replacement for active recovery, though I’d call it passive recovery,” says Eugene Babenko, DPT, a New York-based physical therapist. “If we could, we’d be constantly moving our fluids throughout the day, but we don’t. And especially when you’re really sore, these can be something of a substitute for active recovery.”

He’s quick to point out that a massage will probably do a better job, since the idea with massages is to push tension and waste products throughout your system. But peristaltic pulse technology is probably better than something more basic and self performed like foam rolling.

“I find Normatec’s graded compression system superior to conventional compression tights or devices,” adds Stefi Cohen, world record-holding powerlifter and co-founder of Hybrid Performance Method. “Besides improving circulation, it gives you a light massage that helps you relax and reduces muscle soreness for subsequent sessions.”

The science is largely in agreement, though it wouldn’t be true to say there’s a consensus. A 2015 study of ten healthy participants who underwent an hour of peristaltic pulse compression saw a decrease in gene and protein expression patterns related to inflammation and oxidation, and two other studies from that year saw significant decreases in muscle pain and improved blood flow in the compressed area. Then again, a 2013 study in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that it didn’t do anything to improve recovery among healthy participants.

What’s the Verdict?

“It’s a nice addition to a workout routine. If I had them available to me, I would definitely be on my laptop answering emails while I have them on,” says Babenko. “The bottom line is, you’re flushing the area without having to think about it or inconvenience yourself that much.

Sure, physiologically, you’re going to get more benefits by doing a light row. But we should never undervalue the mental benefits of chilling and not having to think about your workouts or diet for a little while. With this product you can watch Netflix and (probably) improve your recovery without having to do anything. That’s hard to hate on — it’s just worth remembering they’re probably not going to come cheap.

Featured image via @nohlsen on Instagram.