The idea of an electric current to stimulate muscle contraction is nothing new. The ancient Egyptians deployed electric eels for some slippery pain relief, and in 1752 Benjamin Franklin used electrostatic machines for a similar outcome.
In the modern age we’ve had TENS machines and, in issue 274 of 220 Triathlon magazine, we reviewed the super pricey Compex Mi-Sport (£749). Bursting onto the market earlier this year was the firefly (www.fireflyrecovery.com), which, on the face of it, looks a lot cheaper at £30 for a pack.
One of the key differences of the firefly over its contemporaries is that it stimulates the neuromuscular system rather than the muscle. Firefly argue this is less painful because of the higher currencies required for direct muscle stimulation.
It’s also more portable and easier to use than the competition, its entire contents fitting into a neat silver wrapping. (That rather clinical packaging reflects its medical heritage – its elder brother, the geko, has been around for a couple of years and acts as a preventative to deep vein thrombosis for hospitalised patients.)
In each pack you receive two fireflys, which feature the Onpulse technology utilised by the geko; one abrasive pad; two electrode prep wipes and fitting instructions. Ours also came with a knee strap for added security, though that’s £25 extra.
While we’ve used electrostimulation machines in the past, nothing prepares you for a pulsating muscle at rest; in fact, after first use we felt rather nauseous. Thankfully that soon dissipated, remained absent throughout the rest of the test period and we suffered no further side-effects. No long-term issues have been reported in clinical use, although individuals with sensitive skin could suffer occasional skin rash.
Seven levels of stimulation provide a range of currents to course through your system, depending on how rigorous a recovery stimulus you’re after. We settled on mid-range as a violently pulsating muscle offered too much of a distraction. Firefly ambassador Vicky Holland agrees: “I have them on relatively low as you can feel the impulses causing your leg to twitch, but not so aggressively that you simply can’t forget about them.”
Optimum use time is 4hrs before its recommended disposal. However, with 30hrs of electrostimulation in each firefly, to us this seemed a waste. We contacted the firefly team and they confirmed its disposable moniker stems from its medical past. In a hospital environment it needs to be disposable to avoid risk of infection to gain the CE mark of approval, which makes it available in the EU market. In real life, there’s nothing stopping you from reusing it (up to seven times, but be aware that it will lose its stickyness).
However, a word of warning: if you’re an athlete who refuses to shave your pins, now’s the time for a rethink. Its sticking power is of mollusc-to-rock proportions and on removal left a clean red path through our hirsute limbs.
Post-heavy training sessions or races are where it purports to come into its own, so we reserved slapping it on for fartleks, intervals, long hilly bike sessions and two 5km races. We also felt 3hr bikes, while not at race-speed intensity, offered sufficient fatigue to warrant a firefly.
Holland adopts similar usage, too: “I normally use them after track sessions and for travel purposes. I’ve had problems with swollen ankles when travelling over 5hrs. While not perfect, they have helped reduce swelling on long-haul flights. I wore them after both Blenheim and Alanya [European Champs where Vicky took silver], too.”
So did we feel regenerated after multiple 240min bouts of elevated venous return? Yes – a little, anyway. Come the third week of consistent training, that traditional underlying feeling of pain and fatigue had reduced and we’d even become used to that strip of pain. We’re pretty regular users of compression wear, so suspect that ‘non-compressionists’ would enjoy even greater benefits.
In fact, near the end of testing, we discovered research from UK Sport that extolled the benefits of combining compression and electrostimulation, so adopted this very sexy sartorial duo. As it transpired, it’s not a recent idea, with patents pending from 10 years ago of therapeutic lower limb garments that have electrodes fed into them. In all honesty we just felt over-dressed, but it’s a dual option worth trying if you’re in a heavy period of training.
Overall, the firefly certainly appeals to good age-group athletes who are seeking icing on the performance cake; it’s designed for multisporters who’ve nailed their training, sleep and nutrition. Yes, it’s not as tangible as, say, replacing shallow clinchers with 50mm deep-rims, but there are physical benefits, especially in a heavy period of training or a multi-stage race. Also, perception counts for a lot. So if you feel you’re doing everything possible to maximise your performance, you could eek out that extra 2%.
It’s more practical to take to training camps than TENS machines, and not as big a bug to bear if you lose them, but is it good value? If you strictly adhere to the literature supplied, then no. At £30 a pack (£20 introductory offer) and £100 (£80) for a four-pack, using the firefly for optimum usage time of 4hrs before disposal, well, your wallet would have to be of greater volume than your calf-stimulated bloodflow to absorb that. However, follow our advice and reuse until its 30hr lifespan is up and it becomes a more attractive option.
A credible and proven recovery tool, but only for high-end age-groupers and the world's elite. Also very costly for 4hrs use.