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What Is A Recovery Pillow And Can They Improve Your Sleep?

Recovery Pillow
(Image credit: Unknown)

One of the best ways to improve your sporting performance is to make sure you get enough sleep. It’s a vital part of your recovery process and anything you can do to help improve it is worth trying.

The first (and free) things to try include going to sleep and waking up at regular times, avoiding electronic screens in the hours before turning in, and not consuming caffeine or alcohol too close to bedtime. Orthopaedic or recovery pillows are another tool that can help people sleep better, and they are becoming more popular with sportspeople looking to improve the quality of their rest and boost performance.

For more information about recovery pillows and how they work, we spoke to Victoria Reboredo, senior physiotherapist at (med)24 (opens in new tab), a 24-hour private medical clinic in London. We’ve also been giving one a try, and you can read our early impressions below.

What are recovery pillows?

It is an orthopaedic pillow. They offer full-body support, so they are larger than a regular pillow. They remind me slightly of pregnancy pillows; big pillows 160cm-ish long that you can hug, and they give support from the neck to the ankle level. Depending on the height of the person, of course.

How do they work?

There are various models, and it depends on whether you sleep on your side or your back. The most popular ones seem to be for people who sleep on their side, which is comfortable for most people unless you have shoulder problems.

You put your head and neck on top of it, then hold the pillow so the shoulder is also supported, and then the rest of the pillow is between your knees, so the hips and knees are relieved of pressure too. It’s a bit like a foetal position but not bending forwards so much, so it keeps the spine aligned. That’s why a lot of people find them comfortable. It supports the spine and keeps it aligned, and keeps your joints in the mid-range, so they’re not completely extended or bent but in a relaxed position.

They often have some kind of cover that cools the pillow, because at night the room can get hot and we should be sleeping at around 18°C.

What is the evidence like around the effectiveness of recovery pillows?

There is some evidence around typical orthopaedic pillows, but this is more about the ones for your neck or knees. There are systematic reviews around pillows, not specifically recovery pillows for sports, but pillows in general. These show that if they have a cooling surface and are made of materials that support the spine, and they slightly mould to the spine, they can help sleep. But for recovery pillows they still need to do the research, because it is a newer concept. There is also definite evidence about the benefits of good sleep on sports recovery.

Are there any risks to using a recovery pillow?

There is no risk from the pillow itself, but the user needs to think about their position and any underlying health conditions. For example if you have had shoulder surgery, and the pillow is designed for you to sleep on your side, I would definitely not use the pillow. Or if you have problems with your sinuses or sleep apnoea, I would not recommend sleeping on your back.

How often can you use them?

I think you can use it every night, as long as the position you sleep in won’t affect any underlying health conditions. If you have questions on that you can always ask a healthcare professional. I actually think it’s great to use something like this which won’t have any side effects, rather than medication. Anything that helps to improve your lifestyle without side effects is great.

What It’s Like To Use A Recovery Pillow

Recovery Pillow

(Image credit: Unknown)
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As soon as I unfolded the Kally Sports Recovery Pillow (opens in new tab) I knew it was going to be a problem. My wife, for her part, merely laughed at the sight of it. Simply put, it seemed like this chunky, 160cm-long tube had the potential to come between us both physically and metaphorically, especially once I gave it a name in a misguided attempt at humour, so the odds were against this ever becoming a staple of my nightly routine.

I did exile myself to the spare room for a night to give it a try, but this was an unsuccessful experience. Hugging the pillow creates a pretty comfortable position, but if you’re turning regularly while trying to get to sleep, it’s a faff to manoeuvre the large tube around. In the end I couldn’t drop off while clutching it and switched back to a standard pillow.

It seems like something you could get used to, and the TENCEL case on the pillow did mean it didn’t get too hot while clutching it, even on a fairly warm summer night. If I slept alone I’d give it a few more tries, but it’s something that’s difficult to introduce into a shared bed, simply because of the size.

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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.