Is the Firefly still the best recovery device for runners?

Despite working out regularly, I often feel like a fitness poser because I’m bad at running. Every attempt to do that growing up turned into me trying to convince my parents that I had sports asthma, when I just didn’t know how to control my breathing.

It wasn’t until my 30s that I ran a full mile without giving up and partially walking, and only after a long judgment from a fit friend to whom I admitted I was vulnerable while disguising myself in sportswear. In the end, the only way I could get through a full mile without hyperventilating was to trot at an excruciatingly slow pace, clocking just under a 12-minute mile. I’m so incapable of running that I dug up my Facebook login and password to join a community group for slow runners. Anything to feel better about my imposter syndrome exercising.

Yet every spring, I think this is the year I’ll run an 11-minute mile is a very attainable goal for someone who hasn’t battled with activity for most of their life. Then my body responds with no you’re not and I scream in pain for days after trying. Research shows that running slows down even more with age, so I finally sought help elsewhere, hoping a device like Firefly Recovery might buy me some time.

Firefly claims to increase blood flow by 400 percent and significantly reduce recovery time by using neuromuscular electrical stimulation (or NMES), to stimulate the perineal nerve in the leg. It sounds complicated, but it just involves two straps positioned below the knee and plus/minus buttons to turn the strip on, raise, lower and turn it off.

In line with cryotherapy chambers, compression boots, and massage guns, the Firefly is part of a recent recovery-focused trend where resources once reserved for professional athletes are now available to the average gym-going person. Similarly, several clinical studies show that NMES devices increased microcirculation and reduced perceived muscle soreness more effectively than compression socks and boots. Other research indicates that NMES devices could improve recovery in athletes with lower extremity injuries, as well as reduce the risks of developing dangerous blood clots during long periods of travel. However, it’s worth noting that these studies looked at NMES stimulation in general, rather than Firefly in particular.

Even though Firefly has been used by elite teams like the Chicago Bulls, Anaheim Ducks and the University of Alabama football team, compared to other tools costing from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, Firefly is much more affordable costing $98 for two sets of the device, along with protective knee pads, or $47 for a single set.

You can actually increase your recovery periods with such devices, as they work to improve blood circulation and blood flow, which helps improve recovery, John Gardner, a personal trainer who is not affiliated with Firefly Recovery, assured me. That said, just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it really is important for the average athlete like me.

Speeding up the recovery process for non-athletes using devices isn’t necessarily necessary, Garder explained.

Since I find running utterly pointless in itself, the Firefly seemed like a perfect match to enhance my tumultuous relationship with the activity. If nothing else, it was a good excuse to see if my knees would hold up with some electricity behind them after using the Firefly for three weeks.

Firefly: Take one

The starter pack contained the two sets of Fireflies and straps, along with an instruction insert on how to use it for warm-up, travel, workout recovery, or general soreness after a workout. Depending on your goals, you can use the Firefly for anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours at a time. Each Firefly has 30 hours of battery life before needing to be replaced.

Using the Firefly is fairly intuitive, but they also have several instructional videos, so you can make sure you’re fastening the band correctly.

The first thing I noticed after turning on the device was that the electrical stimulation made my legs kick slightly. This is a desired effect, something the company calls the Firefly flutter. Honestly, this has been my favorite part, especially for a quick warm-up after stretching, while hydrating. For me, one of the biggest challenges when it comes to working out is getting started, but getting my blood pumping first was the exact push I needed to get out the door for my first run of the season.

I was so excited to use the Firefly that I forgot to buy new running shoes and was stuck with my worn out Nikes that I needed to replace way earlier than last year. For the sake of the experiment, I followed up with a short mile run and finished at 12:24 with a stomach ache. (To me, running sometimes feels like shaking your guts like they’re a bottle of champagne.)

As instructed, I turned the Firefly back on for another hour after my ride, and the pulse gave me hope that I wouldn’t feel too slammed the next day.

The second flight

It may have been the enhanced circulation, my slow trot, or the fact that I was only running a mile, but I wasn’t in too much pain over the next few days. Since the Firefly is intended to be used for all types of training, I decided to vary my workouts for the next few days, opting for exercises that appealed to me the most.

I used the Firefly before and after two 30-minute high-intensity interval training sessions, courtesy of Nike Training Club on Netflix. Even though I train four to five days a week, I’ve found that shorter workouts throughout the day work better for me. As a result, it doesn’t take more than a 30-minute HIIT class to feel it the next day, let alone two.

The firefly didn’t work miracles, but again I wasn’t as sore as I’d anticipated. Plus, I had the device available for the next day, without having to wait for it to charge. After an hour of frolicking and lots of water, I was ready for a nap.

Ultimately, rest, water, and many other simple tactics are far more important yet underrated recovery tools. Relevant to all fitness levels is the need for enough sleep, hydration and, of course, adequate nutrition to ensure adequate recovery from any training stimuli, said nutritionist and strength coach Ben Brown.

But as long as I wasn’t using the Firefly to compensate for any of these basic recovery needs, a little electrical stimulation and increased circulation couldn’t hurt, I thought. So I had another glass of water when I woke from my nap and turned the Firefly back on for another hour while I whipped up a healthy spinach-avocado salad with chicken for dinner and a blueberry, banana, and spinach smoothie for dessert.

Third time the charm

After a day of active recovery of just walking and gentle yoga at home, I got back into my routine with my all-time favorite fitness activity: hot yoga. After using the Firefly for two separate hour-long sessions on my off day, I used it to warm up for 30 minutes before progressing to 60 minutes of bikram-style hot yoga—a predictable pattern that I have memorized by now, but I feel it still in my body enough the next day to qualify as a real workout. (Of course, the 105-degree heat helps with that.)

After yoga, I fluttered with the firefly for about an hour. The following day, I felt fully recovered and ready to run, this time in a new pair of Brooks Revel 6 running shoes, about 45 minutes after using the device to warm up. That seemed enough for what turned out to be a 12-minute workout and 10-minute cool-down while walking home, as I once again wondered why my stomach felt so weird.

Between the second and third week, I noticed that the Firefly strips were leaving a bit of a residue behind, which looked like adhesive from a Band-Aid that had been left in too long. The viscosity wasn’t ideal, and while it washed off easily, it made the product literally feel stickier than it was. Other than being rendered unusable after 30 hours of use, the Firefly’s overall availability was its biggest flaw. The Velcro straps held the device in place as the adhesive strips wore away. But at the same time, I wondered if there was a way to incorporate the technology into the woven bands themselves and simplify the overall product.

Regardless of this flaw, I was getting used to making the Firefly a part of my warm-up and cool-down routine even if my next mile came at 12:01.

Four to be honest

While I didn’t beat my insignificant time, I felt good enough after the run to rehydrate and rush off to a Sunday hot yoga class. I figured it would be a good way to stretch and recover, rather than a trap for overdoing it. When I got home, I knew I was wrong, I was devastated.

For someone just starting out in fitness, recovery devices aren’t necessary as they wouldn’t have to overtrain to allow their body to make a habit of working out without hitting burnout, Garder cautioned. Challenging yourself and gradually building up the pace allows beginners to sustain the exercise and integrate it into their daily routine.

As negative as her use of the word beginner seemed, she was right. Much like lightning flying straight into a tiki torch, Firefly sent me flying too close to the sun. Brown agreed that the weekend warrior who doesn’t train much and occasionally goes hard will be relegated to unnecessary and limiting amounts of muscle soreness and therefore may actually come back, he warned. Instead, that same person who can realistically infuse smaller amounts of physical activity, more frequently, will provide both more appropriate stimulation and quicker recovery and have a greater benefit.

However, I wore the firefly for several hours while moaning while walking my dog, stretching and hydrating the next day. Generally, when I overexert myself, it takes two days to recover. Whether it was pride, the placebo effect, or the increased circulation from the Firefly, I was ready for another slow jog after a rest day. And unsurprisingly, it was a luxurious 12:11 mile, in line with my other pleasant moments.

Eventually, Firefly can increase circulation and potentially recovery time, but it can’t work miracles. And while I’ll happily use it for the remaining hours I have left in the battery, once it stops flapping, I’ll probably go back to using water, stretching, and rest as my recovery tools.

There’s something to be said for how a device like the Firefly can bring some newness to a workout you’ve struggled to tackle and are just getting bored of. But that makes devices like this more of a motivation-boosting toy than a tool for making seismic changes to your fitness levels. But as long as you don’t use electrical stimulation with the expectation of going from a slow runner to a top athlete, go ahead and try it at home. You will probably crush me.

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