by Menko Johnson
Our new team sponsor Speed Hound (https://thespeedhound.com/) is a brand you may not be familiar with unless you have a triathlete in your family. Their ProPerformance Recovery Boots System (https://thespeedhound.com/collections/items-in-stock/products/speed-hound-properformance-recovery-system) is a pneumatic leg compression system designed to enhance recovery and promote adaptation by letting you recovery faster. Most amateur riders have never used “compression boots” before, so Speed Hound asked me to try their system out for an extended period of time to understand first hand how it works.
This inspired me to look into the science of peristaltic compression and its potential benefits for us as cyclists, which is something most of us have not had the chance to really look into. Personally, I have really struggled the last few years to reach the same levels of training load and fitness as I had even 5 years ago, and felt most of that had to do with diminished recovery and my inability to tolerate the same levels of high-intensity training I used to. So I invite you to put your legs up, grab a nice beverage or snack, and read on a bit about the science behind this recovery tool and my personal experience the last month of using the Speed Hound Recovery System on a regular basis.
You’re a bike racer, which means you’ve already got mental problems. Normal people go for a ride for fun; you insist your rides are also “fun” and persist in this fiction by describing the depths to which you pushed yourself, how you not only took up residence in the pain cave, but lit a damn fire in there and insist it felt “good.” At this point, normal people have that wary look on their face and start to look for a way to exit from the conversation, because you are clearly nuts.
RESEARCH ON RECOVERY COMPRESSION:
However, all this fun comes at a price–turning yourself inside-out leaves your legs feeling crippled and even a small flight of stairs makes you cry for your mommy. Short term you have that burning sensation from lactate build up, followed the next day by DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), where you hop on the bike and say “maybe I’ll feel better after I warmup.” Putting in multiple hard days in a row takes its toll, and cyclists have been turning to technology solutions to try and solve this problem. World Tour pros get a daily massage session at all the stage races and training blocks, but most of us can’t afford $100/hour for this luxury. Amateur cyclists have been looking for less expensive solutions, some old school (ever tried that ice bath and have your spouse wonder why you’re screaming a few octaves higher?) and some modern. Massage devices like “The Stick”, “The Ball” or other borderline torture devices, compression clothing, and fancy pneumatic compression sleeves that use air to simulate massage and forcibly move blood from your feet to your heart are all methods being used. Watch any NBA game and you’ll see compression arm sleeves on many players in an attempt to improve performance.
But does any of this stuff actually work to reduce DOMS and enable cyclists to start their next ride feeling more refreshed, less sore, and ready to put in some hard training? Recent research has found that soreness is part of the rebuilding process, and attempting to avoid that (eg: using NSAIDs) might actually impair development. However, being so sore you can’t perform solid training the next day delays your development. So how do you find that happy medium between solid training blocks and hard muscular efforts without shattering yourself so much you can’t ride for days?
Sports medicine researchers have done several studies on different types of athletes and found that massage is highly effective, followed by compression garments (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29755363). Photos with pro cyclists wearing inflatable “space legs” started showing up about 10 years ago and research has found these to be the next best thing to massage as it promotes the same benefits of massage, if the systems are designed right. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5955306/). If you’re not a big reader, but like podcasts, here’s a good one that talks a lot about compression technology in recovery: https://www.velonews.com/2018/08/podcast/fast-talk-podcast-ep-52-enhancing-recovery-with-normatec_474429
Back in 2012, I bought a set of Podium Legs (~$600), as Murray, myself and few other PV racers sought to recover better from a diet of 2 interval sessions a week and double-day races on the weekend during the cross season. I was a little dubious, but at $100/session for massage, I figured it wasn’t a huge investment in comparison. I quickly discovered the compression legs helped significantly reduce soreness/fatigue in my legs, but the system had 2 major drawbacks. First, the maximum program time is 15 minutes–I found recovery would typically take 45-60 mins so I had to keep restarting the program. Being a busy athlete, I was trying to do 2 things at once–take my 20 minute nap AND massage my legs. It sure would be nice for it to run longer. The 2nd, more significant issue is despite having 3 different program settings, the Podium Legs didn’t have the one that matters the most–”peristaltic pulse compression”. Basically the boots start compression at your feet, hold it, and work their way up your legs and then releases them all at the same time. My Podium Legs have a mode that does this, but then reverses directions, essentially pushing all the fluids back down into my feet, essentially defeating the purpose.
SPEED HOUND SYSTEM
With a background in triathlon, Speed Hound knows a little something about recovery. Let’s face it, compared to a competitive triathlete, we’re a bunch of wussies. I don’t go out and train double days, 6 days a week, and only run if I’m being chased. Their bodies are surely taxed far more heavily than ours, so being able to recover is the key to being able to train harder. Speed Hound’s Recovery compression system is designed to help your body speed up the process of moving fluids out of your legs and massaging those muscles back into shape.
Out of the box, Speed Hound’s compression system is clearly thought out and ready to go. After years with the Podium Legs, it was easy to see there were a bunch of clever small details built in you might not notice if you hadn’t used a system that lacks them. There are 2 main parts to the system–a compressor which has all your settings and generates the pneumatic forces, and the compression boots, which slide over our legs and deliver the “squeeze” to your legs. The compression boots themselves have 4 zones, your feet, lower calves, hamstrings, and quads. The system allows you to select any or all of those zones to focus on, and I typically just do all 4. You simply slide the boots on (they have full-length zippers to make on-off easy), plug the air lines into the pump, and plug the pump into the wall.
To operate the system, all you have to do is select 2 things: the compression mode (Massage or Peristaltic Compression), and the duration of the session (10-20-30 minutes). Both modes work their way up from your feet to your quads, but massage applies pressure one area at a time and then releases, while PC applies pressure and holds it. Lastly, it has over 10 different levels of pressure, which means you can have it squeeze very gently at its lowest levels, all the way up to a “boa constrictor” mode that elicits high-pitched gasps. I’d recommend starting low and finding what works for you–the goal is recovery, not injury.
Beyond the simple use of the system, there are several things that really stood out to me about the quality and thought put into the design of the system. First off, the pneumatic plug that attaches the legs to the compressor has a tab to make sure you insert it the right way–this matters because if you have it upside down, the air goes into the opposite zones on the boots. Second, the supplied power cord is nice and long, which means you can move the unit around quite a bit. I always had an extension cord in my Podium Legs and more than once had the pump fall off the bed because the cord was stretched. The leg sleeves themselves have nice pockets to hide all of tubes and protect the connections, and even have inserts for ice packs if you so desire. The whole unit comes in a nice zip up padded carry case, which makes it easy to transport to races, training camp, and so on. Give yourself a 12v power adapter and chauffeur, and you can do this from the back seat of your car if you so desired. Speed Hound even makes an optional carrying backpack for more transportability. The pump is quiet and I found if you put it on something that isolates sound you can run this thing while watching TV and not annoy your spouse, which was the major drawback I had previously with the pump from my Podium Legs–it drove Cami crazy.
DOES IT WORK?
I spent the last 3 weeks using the system after workouts, races and weight lifting. At first, I figured it might be a little nicer than my Podium Legs, but after 3 weeks I can definitively say these are a huge improvement and are functionally much better. This last week I put in 3 consecutive hard days in a row, and used Speed Hound Recovery for an hour after each one. Sunday I pulled out all the stops and did several maximal efforts ranging from 10-15 minutes, each with an all-out sprint for 30 seconds at the end. My legs were utterly trashed when I got home, so I waited a few hours and then sat down with the Speed Hound legs for an hour of quiet time around 3pm. By late evening, that customary fatigue and “heavy” feeling where every little squat or stair burns was practically non-existent. I wasn’t fresh by any means, but I woke up ready to ride and not like I had just put in a super hard 3 hours the day before. I like them so much I’d consider carving out 30 minutes every day, even on easier days because I just feel better. In a game where recovery is probably more important than the workout, I was pleasantly surprised to find that regular use really did make a difference for me. It is definitely capable of more than “mild compression” as the image below shows my leg after an hour long session.
If you love to hammer hard miles on the road, track or dirt, especially back-to-back days, it might be worth considering investing in a set of ProPerformance Recovery Boots. As cyclists we’re often happy to drop large sums of money to get the newest, lightest, and fastest gear, but that’s always focused on the training side of the equation, often neglecting the most simple things, like sleep and body work.