Today, I make a slight deviation from our usual cadre of product review categories. Normally, I tend to stay away from anything to do with nutrition, recovery, training plans, and focus exclusively on equipment related to swimming, biking, and running. But I've long been interested in NormaTec boots, a very cool gadget that happens to be a recovery tool. Originally developed to help treat certain circulation disorders, compression boots as a category have made their way into the realm of endurance athletics as a way to help aid recovery by improving bloodflow post workout. Think of it as a sort of high-tech, turbocharged set of compression leggings. The idea is that greater bloodflow can help speed up your body's natural recovery process, helping you feel better faster. NormaTec recommends generally using the boots for at least 30 minutes a day over a period of several weeks to begin to see systemic results.
So what exactly are these things, and how do they work? Well, as mentioned above, they're compression boots. They function a bit like a blood pressure cuff, enveloping your legs in a chamber of air that fills up and presses against your limb. In NormaTec's case, the boots have five separate chambers that are inflated and deflated individually - these chambers wrap around your foot/ankle, lower calf, upper calf, lower quad, and upper quad, more or less. Each chamber overlaps its neighbor just a bit, so there's never a harsh seam where compression stops or starts. Each boot has an integrated hose that connects to the main unit, which is essentially an air compressor that controls the amount of air/pressure flowing to each chamber.
The main unit can be powered by battery or DC power, and has simple controls for dialing in your compression
That main unit comes in two versions - the "MVP" unit that I've reviewed here, and a more expensive "Pro" unit that adds the ability to customize the functionality a bit. Both the main unit and the boots are very well-made, with high quality materials and a very robust design that can stand up to quite a bit of abuse. For my test, I'd use the boots for a session, then toss them behind the couch when finished. The boots and main unit are both quite durable and will easily stand up to travel, clumsy storage, and curious children. In use, they work something like a blood pressure cuff, enveloping your leg in a cushion of air that is designed to get your blood moving in specific ways. To better understand just how they work, it may be instructive to take a look at a competing product as well.
So how does the NormaTec compare to similar products, like RecoveryPump boots? To be fair, I haven't had personal experience with RecoveryBoots, but the primary advertised difference is that NormaTec uses a patented "Sequential Pulse And Hold" compression sequence where RecoveryPump uses a "Sequential Compression" sequence. The RecoveryPump method is easier to explain, so I'll start there. Basically, it begins at your foot, inflates and holds that zone, then inflates and holds each successive zone all the way up your leg, and eventually releases all the zones. NormaTec boots are a bit more complicated. They begin with the first zone at your foot, pulse on/off for about a minute in that zone, then hold the zone tight while continuing to the next zone. That second zone also pulses and eventually holds. Then the third zone begins to pulse (with zones 1 and 2 still holding). This time, when that third zone changes to its hold cycle, the first zone releases. Then the fourth zone begins and holds (and the second releases), the fifth begins and holds (then the third releases), then the fourth and fifth zones release together. This is explained much easier with a couple of great charts on the NormaTec site. The idea, according to NormaTec, is that this significantly improves the efficacy of the pump compared to the simpler "Sequential Compression" pattern that simply fills up all the chambers sequentially and releases them all at once. I can't make a comparative statement about the two systems, but I can confirm that with each of the four release cycles of the NormaTec boots, you really feel blood moving. And I'm perfectly willing to believe that this increased amount of movement per cycle (compared to just a single release with Sequential Compression) is a big benefit.
The hose attachments are robust and easy to use
I'm not going to get deep into the scientific literature for pneumatic boots, but their use in the medical community is fairly well established, and backed by plenty of different studies. Although I couldn't find any study specifically related to the use of pneumatic compression devices among endurance athletes (or athletes in general), there's at least one study suggesting that compression therapy isn't linked to improved performance. That being said, the same study said that massage therapy didn't show a benefit either, yet plenty of massage-loving athletes won't care what the studies say on that front. It may be much the same with compression boots. They feel good, they definitely help your blood move, and at the most basic level, they force you to sit down and kick your feet up for a while - something most of us could do with.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to NormaTec is the fact that my wife, decidedly NOT an endurance athlete, became hooked on the boots after just one try. During the couple months we had these for testing, we would constantly be stealing them back and forth. A typical evening would have one of us come into the living room, ready to use them, only to find our other half was already in the boots, not prepared to give them up for another 45 minutes or so. We used them as much as we could during our testing block, and were both sad to see them go. I really enjoyed my time with NormaTec, and if you're not turned away by the relatively high price of admission, I do recommend checking them out.