The Science Behind LeBron's Post-Game Recovery (and How You Can Use It)
Since the start of the 2010 season, LeBron James has played nearly 18,000 minutes of basketball. If that sounds like a lot, it's because it is. In fact, the guy who played the second-most minutes over that span—Kevin Durant—logged roughly 2,300 minutes fewer than King James. This is one reason why LeBron's greatness defies logic—he plays longer and harder than anyone else in the NBA, and yet his performance never seems to suffer.
While it's certainly possible LeBron is part cyborg, the real secret behind his everlasting energy is his incredible dedication to recovery. With the help of both tried-and-true methods and cutting-edge technology, LeBron has been able to fight off fatigue and showcase his sensational skills each and every time he steps on the court. What follows is everything LeBron uses to recover between his monstrous on-court performances, and how you can take a cue from his recovery routine.
Immediately post-game, LeBron slips into a pair of snug-fitting compression tights. This isn't a fashion statement; it's about accelerating the recovery process in his lower body. LeBron actually helped create the Nike Pro Recovery Hypertight compression tights, designed to "reduce muscle swelling by putting pressure where you need it."
LeBron said the tights "help my performance in the simple fact that I'm able to recover from game to game, and I am able to get back to feeling great before the [next] game starts."
The science behind compression tights backs up that statement. A 2013 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found that when "compression clothing was applied for recovery purposes after exercise, small to moderate effect sizes were observed in recovery of maximal strength and power." The study found that wearing compression clothing for recovery significantly impacted things such as vertical jump, blood lactate removal, muscle swelling and perceived muscle pain.
Normatec Dual-Leg Recovery System
Whereas compression tights and sleeves have been around for a long time, Normatec MVP Recovery System Boots incorporate some pretty advanced technology. LeBron's long-time trainer Mike Mancias introduced the boots in the summer of 2011, after a particularly brutal workout, and LeBron has been a huge fan ever since.
How does compression work? Our body uses oxygen and nutrients from our blood to function, and it does this at a higher rate when we exercise intensely. When our cells can't get enough oxygen to keep up with strenuous activity, performance suffers and excess lactic acid builds up. Compression helps flush out the deoxygenated blood, lactic acid and other waste products from our extremities so that oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood can flow back in more effectively. It does this by increasing the velocity that blood moves through our veins and dilating our arteries to allow for greater overall blood flow.
The boots are essentially a highly-optimized form of compression, using air pressure to dynamically compress different regions of the lower body. LeBron typically uses them the night after and the night before a game. A pair of these bad boys will cost you about $1,750, but compression clothing and foam rolling can have similarly positive effects on your circulation.
Immediately after a game, LeBron likes to take a polar bear plunge into an ice-bath—a recovery technique that's seemingly been around for centuries.
Several studies have found a small positive physical impact from cold-water immersion post-exercise, but the psychological benefits of ice baths might provide a bigger boost. Many athletes report feeling markedly better after taking an ice bath, even though the science says the positive effect on the body—if any—is fairly small. But mentally feeling as if your body has healed and you are in less pain can have a significant effect on your performance, regardless of what traditional measurable levels of recovery might say.
Making your own ice bath isn't exactly practical. A more convenient approach involves performing an ice cup massage.
You might think hydration is only important in the time leading up to and during the game, but getting rehydrated immediately after a game is high on the list of priorities for elite athletes. LeBron drinks both water and a carbohydrate-rich recovery fluid to help him both re-hydrate and replenish his glycogen stores.
According to the National Athletic Trainers Association, including carbohydrates in your rehydration fluid can improve absorption of water and sodium and help replenish glycogen stores. Drinking a fluid that contains sodium post-exercise also helps your heart rate more quickly return to a state that's optimal for recovery.
Hydration is something you can always control. Drink plenty of water both during and after an intense workout or practice to improve your recovery, and feel free to mix in a sports drink for its carbohydrate and electrolyte content. If you can't afford sports drinks, you can always make your own!
RELATED: How to Make Your Own Sports Drinks
High-Quality Protein and Carbs
Following a game, LeBron eats a meal packed with high-quality protein and carbs. This helps him repair his muscles and restore his energy reserves and puts his body in a good place to recover while he catches some Z's.
It's been shown that protein and carbohydrates interact with each other in a way that's beneficial to recovery, so eating them together in a post-game meal is a very good idea. There's no real secret here—your body is craving protein and carbs after it exercises, and providing it with these two nutrients (in addition to some fat) will aid your natural repairing processes and leave you in good shape for your next game.
LeBron likely has a personal or team chef prepare post-game meals for him, but eating a high-quality, post-game meal doesn't require this luxury. Head here to find out how you can create your own healthy post-game meal.
Man I need a massage badly!
— LeBron James (@KingJames) June 28, 2013
Soft-tissue massage involves applying pressure and action on the muscles, tendons, ligaments and other soft tissue in the body. Mancias is typically charged with performing soft-tissue massages on LeBron after intense practices and games.
According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, soft-tissue massage has a number of benefits. "When a practitioner massages soft tissue, electrical signals are transmitted both to the local area and throughout the body. These signals, in combination with the healing properties of touch, help heal damaged muscle, stimulate circulation, clear waste products via the lymphatic system, boost the activity of the immune system, reduce pain and tension, and include a calming effect."
Several studies have backed up the healing power of massage, and this long-standing recovery technique will probably continue to be used. Although you might not have a personal trainer, you can still benefit from soft-tissue massage. Use self-massage techniques and a recovery tool like a foam roller to effectively massage hard-to-reach places.
Active recovery refers to performing an exercise or movement at a low intensity, increasing blood flow and helping your body clear the toxins associated with fatigue and muscle damage. Instead of just sitting on a couch all day doing nothing—known as passive recovery—you can actually enhancing your recovery by exercising. For LeBron, active recovery usually takes the form of riding a stationary bike at a low intensity.
The science behind active recovery is pretty simple—you increase blood flow enough to stimulate the removal of toxins and flush out lactic acid, but you don't work hard enough to cause additional muscle fatigue or damage. Many studies have shown the benefits of active recovery; it leads to an increased level of power and stamina in subsequent bouts of exercise and an overall lower level of lactic acid.
LeBron typically performs active recovery the day after a game, but performing active recovery immediately after or even between bouts of intense exercise has also been found to be highly effective. Active recovery is something you can easily include in your routine. By simply jogging or riding a stationary bike at a low intensity—or performing something like light hiking or light yoga—you'll prime yourself for a great performance the next time you step between the lines.
The ice bath is an old recovery method. The cryotherapy chamber takes its premise and turns it up to 11. LeBron frequently includes cryotherapy chamber sessions in his recovery routine. According to the website of CryoTherapy Plus (the cryotherapy-based business LeBron visits in Akron, Ohio), whole body cryotherapy "stimulates the natural response of your body to cold, resulting in the reduction of inflammation and swelling."
The chambers at the location LeBron visits use cryogenic nitrogen vapor to quickly lower the body's temperature. Sessions last under three minutes, because the temperature inside the chamber can plummet to as low as minus-290 degrees fahrenheit.
Finding a cryotherapy chamber available for public use can be very difficult, and the sites that do offer them often charge a pretty penny for the service.