Editor’s note: It’s here! For the second-straight year, we’re presenting another 12-day holiday gift guide, brought to you by the one and only “FBD”, our gear-review guru. Kicking the series off, recommendations for recovery gifts to keep you and your ski buddies on the trails and injury free.
Day 1: Recovery tools
All right people, I’m back. And better than ever. So in typical FBD style, we’re going to hit it and hit it hard. Charging hard right out of the gate, I’m going to get all up in your grill with science n’ sh*t, so let’s do this.
We’re going to kick off this year’s series with a topic near and dear to my heart, recovery. Let’s set the scene: you were somehow able to beg, borrow, or steal your way onto snow in the last week or so for the first sesh of the year. Whether it was West Yellowstone, under the lights at Elm Creek, or a few quick laps around Placid, you somehow figured out how to get your cabin-fever riddled ass out on snow. REAL snow (well, I’m using the term “real” very loosely here, the point is it was not pavement). But the problem is you’ve been polishing a chair with your ass for the bulk of the summer working for The Man, sitting in traffic like a sucker, driving your weiner kids to soccer practices, and all of the other activities that distract and detract from your training (like collecting mammoth Great Dane turds), so now after a few days of blowing it out with as much training as you hardening arteries could handle, your hamstrings feel like piano wire, your lower back is spasming like the beat in a Berlin disco, and you have the grip strength of one of those stupid carnival claw games. Now what? Well, as usual, we here at FasterSkier have you covered (well, I do, as my FS colleagues Gavin and Jason don’t really care about any of you people. No one loves you the way I do — never forget this).
If you’ve been fortunate enough to spend more than 30 seconds with me, you’ve most likely heard me utter the phrase, “You don’t get faster from doing hard workouts, you get faster by recovering from hard workouts.” I say this a lot because it’s true. And because I love the sounds of my own voice. Regardless, I don’t care how young you are, how old you are, how fast you are, or how slow you are, this rings true for everyone. EVERYONE. More on this later too, as recovery isn’t just about getting faster, it’s also about not getting hurt and perhaps most importantly, having fun. Skiing IS supposed to be fun, remember? And it’s pretty hard to have fun if you’re so crippled from the workout that you’re relying on your Great Dane to bring you adult beverages.
The issue at hand, therefore, is regardless if you are a chronic over-trainer, can barely squeeze in a few sessions a week, or train full-time and do everything perfectly, you still need to recover well. And I can tell you from firsthand experience, the longer you’ve endured your wrestling match with Father Time, the more important recovery becomes in not only performance, but in pure survival.
Great. Now what? Well, that’s easy — recovery better, dummy. I know this is easier said than done though, so here are the FBD test team picks as to how to do recovery right. I’ll follow the convention I set last year and break these products down by price. Please note, however, that this is not necessarily in increasing order of effectiveness, as some of the more reasonably priced items are also some of the most effective.
Foam roller: Under $20
Right off the line with the hole shot, the first item is probably also one of the most effective. And certainly the most cost-effective: the trusty foam roller. Available for less than $20, my entire test team (along with countless other athletes) all agreed that some form of this item is basically indispensable. In fact, physical therapist to the stars (and U.S. Ski Team), Dave Cieslowski, once told me, “FBD, probably about 80 percent of my patients wouldn’t need to see me if they just rolled out every day.” Wow. One of the elements of these reviews that was tricky is that recovery can be highly subjective very variable from person to person, so when one of the best PT’s that I have ever worked with, one who specializes in skiing, running, and cycling, says that foam rolling is one of the best tools available, I take that recommendation seriously. Very seriously. And so should you.
Foam rollers are effective, reliable, portable, safe and cheap, so you literally have no good excuse to not be using one. In fact, I take with me on every training trip (and the occasional business trip if I’m optimistic that I’ll get in even a whiff of training). $18.99 on Amazon
Lacrosse Ball: Under $10
Right in this same vein of very utilitarian, effective, economical, and portable is the tried-and-true lacrosse ball. Eight bucks, it fits in your suitcase/briefcase and can help keep you fast and fit, so again, you’d be crazy to not gift one of these to your sporty and sedentary brethren alike. As an added bonus, it’s cheap, so it’s a perfect present for people whom you don’t like all that much. $8.95 on Amazon
Massage Ball: $19.95
Another killer value can be found in the Pro-Tech 5” Orb massage ball. It is a little limited in its application (the company says it works everywhere on the body, but those companies always say that), but where it really shines is in dealing with knots in the more lateral areas of the back, e.g., lower lats, traps and under the scapulas. In these areas, the Orb has no equal. Yup, you’re out another $20, but who deserves it more than you? $19.95 on Pro-Tech Athletics
This product is also extremely high in the ROI category. Not to be confused with Tropic Thunder, this topic gel is designed to, well, I’ll let them tell you: “Topical Edge’s clinically proven Performance & Recovery Lotion helps you train harder, go faster, push longer and recover quicker.”
Yes, yes, I know, these are lofty claims for which even mildly intelligent reader should be skeptical; I know I was. But here’s where the story gets good: firstly, the science behind Topical Edge is very solid and has been around for a long time. The product is essentially a transdermal sodium bicarbonate lotion. Sodium bicarbonate has been dancing around in endurance athletics for years, but oral administration has an extremely high incidence of side effects, most notably, gastrointestinal distress. And to be clear here, we’re not talking about a bit of a gurgly stomach, we’re talking about severe cramps, vomiting and explosive diarrhea. There is nothing funny about any of this, but I have to confess, I have been waiting my entire professional life to use the phase, “explosive diarrhea.”
For you new racers out there in the studio audience, vomiting and explosive diarrhea are not something you want to deal with on race day. Or any day, for that matter. So oral sodium bicarbonate is out for most athletes, for obvious reasons.
Given the fact that the ergogenic effect of the sodium bicarbonate was significant, safe and legal, the folks at Topical Edge came up with an idea: if this compound could be administered transdermally, it might be possible to completely eliminate all of the GI side effects. It worked.
Now on to the question of efficacy. Or in layman’s terms, “Does this crap work for skiers?” The short answer is, “It did for us,” but, but, BUT, please do not stop reading here, for this situation is a bit more nuanced.
First of all, any good scientist knows that it is extremely difficult to remove bias from even a carefully controlled scientific study and our testing was about as far from scientific as it gets: the whole test team knew what we were getting and when we were getting it, there was no placebo control whatsoever, the test group was statistically insignificant in size, and the list goes on and on. It is also very important to point out that even with the company’s own scientific study (which they funded, so please factor that in accordingly), they only saw an increased performance of 1 to 3 percent in their endurance test group. So don’t buy this expecting to shave one hour off your Vasa time. On the other hand, let’s also not be so quick to poo poo a 1 to 3 percent increase: elite athletes train for a year or more to net a 1 to 3 percent increase in speed, so this gain (or as they say in Philly, GAINZ!!!) is nothing to sneeze at, but important to keep in perspective.
Topical Edge is also purported to decrease DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and even aid in recovery (which is why we’re talking about it here). Our test team also found this to be true. Was it the placebo effect? Maybe, but let’s not forget that the placebo effect is still a real effect. If you’re feeling better because you used something that you think is going to make you feel better, well, you’re still feeling better, aren’t you, Captain Hypochondriac?
I’m going to finish with yet another set of disclaimers: recovery is a very personal thing. Some people like massages, some people do not. Some studies show that massages aid in recovery, some studies show that they do not. Adding to this slurry of competing claims, science, pseudo-science, advertising and promotion, is the even more confusing and perverse world of supplements. For the record, FBD is generally anti-sups for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, safety, efficacy, costs, hassles, and the very unfortunate and somewhat gray area surrounding some of the more effective products (Norwegian nebulizer, anyone?) So do I feel a little funny recommending this product to you? In all honesty, yes, I do.
Having said that however, what I do feel good about is telling you is that my trusty test team and I tried Topical Edge in a several different scenarios and we all had positive experiences. Were we empirically faster in any given race or interval set? Hard to say, but it seemed like TE helped. Add this to the fact that the active ingredient, sodium bicarbonate, has been around for decades, is safe, and there is reasonable scientific consensus that sodium bicarbonate can be a legal and effective ergogenic aid, it is our opinion that Topical Edge might be worth your time and money for a test or two (remember, nothing new on race day, people).
This almost goes without saying, but I’m going to channel my inner Josh Smullin here (yes, very scary, I know): TE is not a replacement for proper training, rest, recovery, nutrition, good gear, waxing (ski, not bikini), mental preparation and general bad assitude. Smearing this goop all over your legs won’t do crap if you aren’t out there “punching the clock” every day (or as many days as you can). There are no shortcuts. Well, no legal ones, but if you’re got that whole list nailed, is it worth plunking down $20 to see if it helps you? I think so. If it doesn’t work for you though, call them, not me. I’m just the messenger here and I have no skin in the game. Or hit up Kentch. He’s sitting around Alaska with nothing better to do — not to mention the fact that he has exquisite grammar and diction, so his thoughtful response will most likely be much more carefully crafted than mine, as I hate people.
The biggest downside I found in my testing is that if you have a white race suit (damn, this almost sounds a bit racist, doesn’t it?), prepare yourself for some unsightly stains.
Finally, I think it is worth reiterating that as an athlete, is it YOUR responsibility what you put in (on) your body. You should not anyone’s word for the safety, efficacy, and legality of ANYTHING, because if you have a problem, whether it is medical or legal, it is ultimately on you. If you think that Topical Edge might help you, great, but YOU need to do your due diligence to ensure that it is potentially appropriate for you. This means discussing it with your coach, doctor, checking the USADA/WADA list and more. This doesn’t just apply to Topical Edge either, this is applicable to everything in the vast sphere of all types of ergogenic/recovery aids. $20 on TopicalEdge.com
$30 – $99
For the astute observers out there in the studio audience, you probably noticed that the orange foam roller shown above was in fact not a cheapy from Amazon, yet instead a more high-end, “designer brand,” Trigger Point. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a top-shelf type of guy, so I’m sure this comes as no surprise to most of you, but as usual, there is a method to my madness.
While you can get a run of the mill foam roller for about twenty bucks, for just one more Jackson you can score the Grid Foam Roller from Trigger Point. The name is a bit misleading though, as it is quite different than a traditional foam roller. This product is a hard plastic tube, wrapped in a layer of foam. This structure provides a much better rollout and the entire test team found it to be much more effective. There are also different contour patterns on the foam, allowing you to adjust the pressure, texture, and feel.
Since it is a hollow tube, it is much easier to travel with than the solid foam rollers, as it can serve double-duty as protection for your skis in your ski bag or as a wonderful sanctuary for wind briefs that have had a tough tour of duty and are in dire need of a washing. Probably most importantly, many athletes find that the inexpensive foam rollers are too soft (insert your own joke here), so while the TP Grid costs a bit more, it’s a “must-have”. As noted above, I literally don’t leave home without it. $39.99 on TPTherapy.com
Not too far away on the evolutionary ladder from the foam roller is the massage stick. Again, preferred usage is highly individual and greatly subject to personal preference, but in general, most people found the foam roller awesome for your back and IT bands, but the bulk of the test team felt that the best way to exorcising the demons of fatigue from your quads, calves and glutes, is a massage stick.
There are lots of brands out there and we tested them all (or as many as we could find) and our favorite was the Grid STK foam roller, I know, I know, it’s also from Trigger Point and I hate sounding like a fan-boy, but every one of their products that we tested seemed to be best in class, so they made the cut in a few places. Here’s a hint too, we’re still not done with them. $34.99 on TPTherapy.com
$100 – $299
Further up the food (and money) chain is the new vibrating foam roller. As is the case with Topical Edge, there is some science floating around this. What’s interesting here is that none of these studies are being pushed by the company; I found them on my own, because, well, that’s what I do.
I certainly wouldn’t call the evidence on the effectiveness of vibration therapy overwhelming, but I do find it interesting that there is at least some scientific basis for this concept. Warning, DO NOT do a Google search for vibrator research — you won’t get what you are expecting:
More importantly than all of the gobbledygook research that seems to frighten many Americans (Climate change is REAL people and science is nothing to be scared of — science does not have an agenda. It is not always perfect, but it is the best approach we have to solve most problems, so please embrace it, not shun it), this device actually works. Every tester went in with healthy skepticism, but was won over in some capacity. “I only liked it on my back, but I really liked it on my back,” said one veteran skier and test team member. Another tester found it perfect to loosen up and relax the quads and hammies. One tester noted, “I’ve used each option separately and liked each on its own, but I was pleasantly surprised when the two were combined.”
The downside is that while there was many instances in which the vibrating motion felt better than the “static” foam roller, there were actually a few use-cases in which it felt worse. Now the obvious answer is simply to not use it in those areas, but hold the phone, what if you could have the best of both worlds? I think you can. Trigger Point, if you’re reading this, and you had better be reading this, because this is gold and you’re not going to get feedback this good from any Vail coaches, why not make the “Vibe” option available on your larger roller? My theory here is that the lower radius of the smaller Grid Vibe increases contact pressure due to the decreased surface area of the device. This, combined with increased rigidity of the core, which is perhaps necessary to house the vibration mechanism, can make for an uncomfortable experience in some anatomical regions. The larger, “standard diameter” Grid Foam roller, however, doesn’t have this problem, so please merge these two products. Pow. You’re welcome. Sure, I’ll have to find a new spot in the suitcase for the blown-out, pathogen-rich wind briefs, but I can be very resourceful when absolutely necessary. For example, maybe I’ll have Smullin carry them for me; he has no problem whatsoever with germs. And he likes helping people. And underwear. $99.99 on TPTherapy.com
OK, moon-shot time. Literally. Well, quasi-literally, as the money shot here, er, moon shot … moon money shot???….is Space Legs. This is just a nickname, as there are conflicting reports as to whether this device has, in fact, ever been to the moon, but with a moniker like, “Space Legs,” I think it fits perfectly with my moon-shot metaphor. All of you healthcare professionals, tri geeks and science nerds out there likely refer to these devices as pneumatic compression sleeves, but us cool guys call them, “Space Legs,” so that’s how they will be referred to prospectively in this missive. (Not to be confused with “massive,” which is how I look when I’m using my Space Legs).
For those of you kicking around the triathlon and/or road bike world, you’ve most certainly seen the likes of x, y, z road pro sitting around their 3’ x 6’ Euro hotel room/cell, with giant, cartoonish, balloon-like pants encasing their little stick legs. Yup, those, my friend, are Space Legs.
Following my theme of doing our best to bring some as much real science and thoughtful analysis to the table as possible, in this product area we thankfully have even more supporting scientific research. This time however, since you’re forking over a much bigger chunk of cash, the companies are very quick to point you to the studies. In all fairness though, this concept probably does has the strongest supporting evidence of any products discussed in this long, rambling review, in particular given the medical roots of the device. Originally designed to help patients with edema, DVT, pulmonary embolisms, and other circulatory disorders, variations on this product have been safely and effectively used in hospitals for years.
There are also many anecdotal examples and testimonials of the effectiveness of these systems from a wide variety of athletes, in particular endurance athletes. Since all of my readers are WAY to smart to fall for the ol’, “Well, gee, if this professional athlete told me that it is good, it MUST be good” flimflam, we’ll take those endorsements with a grain of salt. What we’ll take with a heaping helping of salt though is the fact that so many pro athletes actually use them, many of whom made the purchase with their own money. And yes, I know that for a fact, so hold those letters. (insert JR pic w/ caption “Six-time Ironman Winner and ITU Long-Course World Champion Jordan Rapp getting his recovery on in Norway last summer)
So what do the people who really matter (me and my crew) think? In short, we all loved the Space Legs.
Sitting down to debrief (not take off our underwear, as that expression always confuses me and has made for some very awkward appearances at board meetings) with my whole illustrious test team at the end of the West Yellowstone Ski Festival, timing is everything and I found everyone in just the right state of exhaustion, relief, and glee at the completion of the training camp, so the evaluation feedback was accurate, colorful, and insightful. And hilarious.
“I’m not sure what they’re doing, but they’ve gotta be doing something. I definitely feel better, but I don’t know how or why,” said a senior member of the staff, who has skis older than many of you.
Our laziest tester noted, “Being able to lie down and have something done to me is much better than me having to do something. Not only did it help, but I like that fact that I could just sit there.” And yes, this was in fact, Smullin. He is a very lazy man.
Our chillest tester offered, “It’s a great way to Netflix and chill.” I’m not quite sure how you’d do this and it undoubtedly creates a number of logistical challenges, but I trust her and if she said this works, well, so be it.
Our cheapest tester said, “It felt good. I would definitely use it if someone gave it to me.”
Our pragmatic tester mused, “I would consider buying one if I got massages, as the device would pay for itself fairly quickly.”
All of the test team agreed, “Great for training camps.”
And perhaps our most insightful tester concluded, “If you’re doing everything that you can as an athlete, you should definitely buy one.”
As for which specific models we tested, we approached two of the market leaders, Normatec and Recovery Pump. There is lots of chatter in the online forums as to which system is best, largely dependent on, you guessed it, which company is sponsoring the author (Ah, that pesky experimenter bias rears it ugly head yet again). But what about us, the voice of truth and light?
Well, as much as I’d like to tell you that there was one clear winner, there wasn’t. Everybody liked both systems and everyone had their own favorites for their own reasons. Recovery Pump sent us the “Full Monty,” e.g, leg sleeves, arm sleeves and a cool low back/pelvic girdle accessory. For this reason, a few testers preferred RP, because you’re not living until you get back from a double-pole workout and can have a one-hour, low-back massage in the privacy of your own home at exactly whatever time you dictate. And let’s not forget how sweet it is to have karmic balance restored to your arms and shoulders after a tough strength sesh. I am feeling more recovered just thinking about it. In fairness to Normatec, they do also offer a shoulder sleeve and pelvic girdle, but we were not given an opportunity to test them, so we cannot comment on the effectiveness of their accessories.
On the other hand, I, and a few others, preferred the Normatec. I’ve had the most experience with Space Legs of all of the testers as have used NT for years, so I’m not sure if I liked this NT better because I am simply more used to it or if it truly more effective. A few of the other tests felt like the recovery effect was “just better,” with NT. I wish I could be more definitive for y’all and provide a clear winner, but the results are the results. I will say this though: you can’t go wrong with either system. More pro athletes use Normatec (for whatever that’s worth), but the pelvic girdle option for RP is very nice and works well, especially for our sport.
So while both systems are effective and in the opinion of the entire test team, almost mandatory for any serious athletes, one big thing they are not is cheap. The entry level RP system will set you back $895, but we did not test this system and therefore cannot make comparisons between this and the more deluxe RPX system used for our testing, which will set you back $2,000. Normatec comes in at a cool $1,495 for the system that we used and both systems will get you up into the mid to high $2k range if you want all of the doodads. Which you probably do, especially if you are a dad. (See what I did there?)
Is it worth it? I can’t really answer that question for you. If you barely have money for food and rent and your every spare shekel is going for wax, Ramen, race expenses, this may not be for you. If you are serious about racing or just recovery in general though, as noted above, I’d say this is almost mandatory. Could you simply have a 4:1 carb/protein snack within 30 minutes of completion of your race, put on dry clothes, hydrate, eat a healthy meal, then take a nap? Sure. But your competitor who also does all of this AND has a NormaTec is going to have an edge. Can you beat this little weasel with superior training, tactics, and genetics? Maybe. But again, all things being equal, I am confident in reporting that these devices provide an edge in recovery and rehabilitation, so as my curmudgeonly colleague so aptly stated earlier, “If you’re serious about racing and doing everything you can, you should definitely buy one.” $1,995 on RPSports.com and packages from $1,395 on NormaTecRecovery.com
Recovery is a fascinating topic. It is vital to the success of every athlete, whether elite, competitive or recreational, as it is not only one of the key determinants in success, but also in longevity. Despite this, in my observations, it is often also the most neglected or incorrectly executed component of training.
If you’ve been rolling your eyes at the thought of a bunch of Master Blasters sitting in front of their computer, completely ensconced in any of these aforementioned ridiculous contraptions, before you get too carried away on your high horse, let’s not forget that one of the single biggest contributors to athletes leaving a sport, in particular in later life, is injury, and there is a very strong correlation between proper recovery and injury prevention. I’m not saying that you can train like a lunatic and just by using Space Legs avoid injury (I’m looking at you, Jacked Up Old Man), but these devices can be a few more tools in your arsenal to help keep you healthy and active, which at the end of the day, isn’t that really the ultimate end-game for all of us?
I know I’ve thrown a lot at you here and this begs the question, ‘Do you really need everything on this list?’ Well, my friend, that all depends on how you define “need.” If you want to get really philosophical, do you “need” to ski? Do you “need” new skis every few days/weeks/years/decades? In theory, you could ski on the same pair of skis from cradle to grave, but it is my fervent belief that owning state-of-the-art gear is what separates us from the animals (this, along with spoken language and the ability to use tools).
I will therefore let you define “need” however your wife tells you to define it, or however you budget allows, but what I can tell you with 100 percent certainty is you life will be much better if you follow all of my advice verbatim (on this and all issues). Recovery is the key to success and if you want to “do recovery right,” (trademark, patent pending), you will do everything suggested above. If your budget, SO, coach, dog, god (for all of the dyslexic readers), whomever, won’t allow this to happen, please, at the very least, spend $28 and get a foam roller and lacrosse ball, you cheap SOB.
I would be remiss if I didn’t wind down this wonderful journey with the excellent cautionary tale offered up by one of the salty, seasoned coaches/testers: “All of these concepts are valuable, but this entire process should be kept in perspective. These are all great tools to aid in recovery, but you still have to do the workouts, get good sleep, quality food, etc. This can only be a supplement and still needs to be used carefully. If you aren’t careful, these well-designed tools can jump the shark: they can’t be over-used, mis-used, or take away from training time. You still need to do the work.” Church.
Finally, probably the most significant factor in this whole sordid discussion is that recovery can be highly individual and personal. What works for the FBD, may not work for people like Josh Smullin, who as we all know is a strange, strange man. And that’s OK. What’s important is that you recognize the importance of proper recovery and find out what works for you. You may think that you’re too cool for school and you don’t need to do any of this, but trust me, you do. You may not be tired, injured or sick right now, but following a proper recovery protocol will lessen your chances of any of these distractions and keep you healthier, happier, and out there in the game longer.
See you out there. I’ll be the fit, healthy, happy guy with the weird stains on his race suit and an out of control Great Dane wreaking havoc on innocent onlookers.