Using NormaTec Boots for Recovery: How They Work and What They Feel Like!
As you may know if you’ve been following Runners Love Yoga for a while, I host Instagram yoga challenges nearly every month of the year. These challenges, which feature a variety of themes and sponsors, culminate at the very end of the calendar year in the “12 Days of RLY Running.”
I look forward to co-hosting the 12 Days of RLY Running with eleven other female athletes, many of whom are Olympians; we take turns sharing not just yoga poses but training advice, favorite leg strength exercises, and recovery tips and collectively contribute some impressive prizes to both the winner and runner-up! This year, we really upped the ante with what I would argue was our best challenge grand prize ever: a pair of NormaTec recovery boots.
I found myself wishing I could win my own challenge—that’s how awesome these things are, and this was in fact before I had even gotten to try them in real life! I always considered NormaTec boots to be right up there with altitude tents in terms of really really awesome, really high end recovery and performance tools. (Fun fact: in college, I used to tell my parents that if they bought me an altitude tent, they could use that to count for all Christmases in the future too and just never buy me a present again. For better or worse, they never took me up on this!) So, while I never got an altitude tent, thanks to the kind team over at NormaTec, I got to try a loaner pair of boots just before our challenge began—and just as I happened to be in the midst of recovering from my 2:48 effort at CIM. (So convenient!! For real though!! Sometimes the timing of various events in life is comically bad, but at other times, it really just happens at the right possible moment!) As most runners probably haven’t gotten to try NormaTec for themselves firsthand—hint: you should fix that!—I wanted to share my experiences using THE boots! I call them that because, after this, no other boots will exist for you.
As I was traveling to my hometown of Pittsburgh for the holidays, my NormaTec boots were shipped to my parents’ house, rather than my own. My brother Mark was especially excited about the NormaTec boots; he’s evidently been telling my parents to get me a pair for Christmas for the past couple years! (Mark, where were you during my altitude tent crusade a few years ago?) As they say, giving is better than receiving: once I tried the boots, I was ultra excited to insist that every member of my family also try them. I am pretty sure both my brothers almost fell asleep in our living room while using them, and my dad was totally chuckling to himself watching his evening TV wearing the boots (“these are something else, Ann Margaret!”).
How these boots actually function:
My NormaTec boots arrived in a convenient storage case. Each leg is a separate boot that you connect to a power station of sorts: this is like a mini computer where you can program in the length of your recovery session (the typical session is 20 to 60 minutes), the intensity level from 1 to 7, and whether you’d like extra time spent in any of the 5 “zones” into which the leg is divided from feet to upper quads. One thing I found quite convenient was that you can charge the boots so that they don’t need to be continually plugged in, but if you do need to use them when they’re not fully charged, it was easy to just plug the power station into the wall with the charger cord.
After connecting the power cord to the power station, and the power station to each of the boot legs, you simply put a leg in each boot and zip them up! From there, you press “play” on the power station and off you go! The first inflation cycle fills the boots up with air to conform to your exact body shape. From there, the boots inflate and deflate with varying pressure up and down the five different leg zones, beginning with your feet and working up to your quads. While you might initially think that NormaTec works similarly to something like a pair of compression socks, quite a few major differences exist: compression socks or other compression clothing just operate through static compression (or a steady hold of the same amount of pressure, i.e. squeezing) while NormaTec speeds recovery through dynamic compression, which they call “pulsing.” Instead of just working on say, your calves, by just squeezing and holding, NormaTec’s different zones allow each of the specific 5 zones of your legs to receive the full benefit of the pulsing massage and compression in turn. I’ll also add here that no compression clothing can even come remotely close to the amount of powerful pressure that can be delivered by the NormaTec boots—with the added benefit that you can dial this in to suit your individual preferences. I am really happy at level 7 (out of 7) pressure, while my mom was very content at a level 2. You can additionally customize your NormaTec session by programming in a “Zone Boost” in any of the 5 zones if you want extra attention there: this added an additional 60 seconds of massage and a small boost of extra pressure in that zone.
Instead of just squeezing your legs and holding steady (like compression clothing might), the dynamic compression of NormaTec combines movement and compression to more effectively transport all that post-workout gunk out of your legs. The engineering of how this works is actually pretty fascinating: NormaTec boots use compression and pressure just like a one-way valve. The boots always begin at your feet—the furthermost end of your limbs—and work on the pulsing there first. Next, the pulsing continues up to Zone 2 immediately above your feet while the boots hold static pressure steady at your feet in Zone 1. This pattern continues: the pulsing compression moves to the next zone upward while either the one or two zones immediately below hold steady static pressure. By the time the pulsing moves to Zone 4, the hold pressure in Zone 1 has been released. NormaTec has been designed to release the hold pressure in each zone as soon as possible: this allows that zone of your legs to get a small break before pulsing begins there again. (It’s better for your circulatory system to not have a continual hold of pressure everywhere.) After reaching your upper quads in Zone 5, and pulsing there, the whole system gives out a “whoosh”: the hold pressures in Zones 3 and 4 are released and the cycle begins again at your feet. This is the part, by the way, that I think feels most satisfying!
This whole experience—yes, it is an experience!—feels amazing to tired legs or really any set of legs. I can’t tell you how excited I get when I finally get to be done with my day and, ahhh, thank YOU, NormaTec! Some people relax with wine. I relax by laying with my legs in these amazing boots that give you a full and terrific leg massage. (I’m sure you could also do wine and NormaTec…just plan on being too relaxed to do just about anything afterwards!)
Since receiving my NormaTec boots, I have used them every single day for at least 20 minutes, usually right before I go to bed. Here are my favorite ways that this recovery tool has immediately impacted my performance for the better.
1. Better sleep.
I am not one of those fortunate people who can sleep on planes or in a chair or really anywhere but my own bed. I am not a good napper, but I do generally sleep very hard at night. I can actually fall asleep while wearing these NormaTec boots, which is not something I would have thought possible about myself. Something about the pulsing compression is extremely relaxing and puts me in the right mind—and body!—for deeper sleep. I monitor my sleep using the Sleep Cycle app on my phone—I’m up around 10% better sleep quality even on nights where I don’t sleep as long since I’ve started using the boots.
2. They made my bad foot way way way better.
If you read my CIM blog post, you know I was dealing with some really random foot pain diagnosed as metatarsalgia this fall. While I got this pain largely under control so that I could run through it without it getting worse or really impacting my training, throughout the fall I could still often feel this foot pain at the start of races when in my flats, and at other times when walking barefoot especially in the morning. This was more a nuisance than anything. However, just after getting back into running after my marathon break, this pain reemerged when I was just out on a regular run so that it felt much worse than it had been all of November and December! (“Why, foot, why? I’ve given you a good break!”) In my first couple NormaTec sessions, the pressure in this area of my foot, just behind approximately my second to fourth metatarsals felt more intense than anywhere else in my body while using the boots. However, the NormaTec was doing something really positive here: after this, I didn’t ever have foot pain again like I did in the fall at all. I haven’t felt my foot pain at all when barefoot or when running in flats like I was back in late fall either! I have no idea how this actually helped me, but this experience makes me think this system can probably prevent annoying little kinks from popping up in the first place.
3. I am convinced NormaTec has strengthened my immune system this winter.
My best analogy here is a yoga one: NormaTec is a lot like a shoulderstand in a reclining position. Just like shoulderstand helps your lymphatic system by keeping lymph moving and boosting your immune system response, NormaTec definitely keeps lymph circulating well too! I hardly want to write this for fear I will jinx myself, but I am a teacher who is around a ton of germs and germy places like gyms all day long and I have thus far escaped the winter and early spring unscathed by what I otherwise nearly always get. I take a lot of Airborne chewables, but I’m giving NormaTec some credit for this too!