12 Recovery Tools for Runners Actually Worth the Investment

Yes, quality sleep, nutrition, and recovery days are important, but some days (most days?), I think most of us need all the help we can get. Even if you are doing your best to recover, you could probably still be doing a little better somehow, someway. The faster you recover, the harder you can train and the easier that training will be. Who doesn’t want that? Here’s my breakdown of the recovery tools that have helped me the most, in convenient tiers from least to most expensive. You don’t have to break the bank to recover faster, but if you’ve got the means and are in the mood for a splurge, I can definitely recommend a few investments that are entirely worth the money.

Least expensive (Under $100):

1. Yoga.

(You knew this one would be on here, didn’t you?) No joke, in the past week, I have gone from teaching about 13-15 yoga classes to just 7-8, and I can feel it. Honestly, “the more yoga, the better” is my philosophy at this point. It does more for my recovery and how I just FEEL overall during intensive training than anything else. I have often been asked “but how much yoga is too much yoga?” The answer is that you can’t do too much: if you’re really doing yoga, you are listening to your body and adjusting how and what you do (this also includes modifying your practice to more yin poses or just an extended savasana if you are truly cracked). But, I practice yoga every day, and it IS what keeps my miles going. If you need some help figuring out what yoga to be doing during your training, check out the Runners Love Yoga TV site here, where you can stream workouts anytime anywhere too. The whole reason that Runners Love Yoga exists is because I believe in the power of yoga to help your running; try and see what I mean for yourself.

The Stick in action : for an inexpensive, virtually unbreakable massage tool, add one of these to your arsenal.

The Stick in action: for an inexpensive, virtually unbreakable massage tool, add one of these to your arsenal.

2. The Stick.

Yes, I mean the quintessential stick that you see all the high school and college runners toting around to their track meets. Small but mighty, you can really use some pressure and dig into those muscles with this guy.

3. Epsom Salts/Bath Bombs.

Of course, you do need both a bath tub and time for this one, but if you can manage to scrounge up both of those (side note: is having the time to do this more difficult than finding a real bath tub? Possibly.) I actually think there’s something to this. I’ve used bath bombs with Epsom salts as well as those with baking soda, and both seem to work. I like to aim for two days before a race if life permits, and try to stay put for 20 minutes. I usually bring a book, because I just don’t enjoy sitting in hot water without anything else to do (I otherwise just think about how moderately overheated I am becoming)!

4. Compression socks.

I wear these for all my races and my long runs of 15 miles or more. After my very first marathon back in 2012 when I did not wear compression socks and succumbed to horrible calf cramping, I became a compression socks devotee. I recommend whichever brand you buy, that you let these air dry after washing (you don’t need them shrinking and becoming ultra-compressive or not fitting!). I find brands that measure by calf circumference instead of just shoe size to be the most reliably fitting.

5. A good foam roller.

I almost feel badly for everyone who has heard this story 200 times, but in college, I once traded my expensive Physics textbook to my roommate for her foam roller. Best book trade of my life. Occasionally, I have heard people advise in the past five years that you should not be rolling out your fascia. I don’t know what these people do sports-wise, but my guess is that they aren’t long distance runners. I can only speak from my experience, but foam rolling works. Here’s how to make it more effective:

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  1. Begin with a few moderate speed strokes back and forth, where you aren’t going too fast (no whipping it back and forth!) but where you also aren’t going so slowly where you end up really digging into there. Listen to your body.

  2. After your warmup of maybe 5-7 times back and forth, now you can start going after those tight spots. Concentrate on moving slowly from your hip to knee (not the other direction, which is more likely to irritate your knee), and pause on any tight areas, slowly inching down your leg.

  3. Remember that you can alter the amount of pressure on your IT band by altering the position of your top leg: less intense is planting your top foot in front of or behind you and using that foot to help control your movement up and down your leg, while more intense is stacking your top leg directly over your bottom leg to bring more pressure onto the IT band. Keep in mind that even if legs are stacked, per the intense version, you can always use that top foot to help you roll back to the “start,” i.e. to roll gently back from your knee to your hip to begin the more intense roll in that direction once again.

  4. After you’ve worked out the tighter places, do a couple easier strokes like your warmup to get any last kinks out.

  5. Don’t overdo it. (Yes, what a surprise that I have to tell this to a bunch of runners, but you want to be easy on your leg, especially if it is currently inflamed in which case I would alternate every other day of foam rolling, and limit your time per side to 1-2 min. max.)

You almost can’t go wrong with all of the different bath bomb brands out there: I have fun and try new ones all the time. Most of the beauty stores have good ones: just look for either epsom salts or baking soda as an ingredient.

You almost can’t go wrong with all of the different bath bomb brands out there: I have fun and try new ones all the time. Most of the beauty stores have good ones: just look for either epsom salts or baking soda as an ingredient.

Moderately expensive ($100-200)

6. A good pillow.

One inconvenient thing to pack, but that I always bring to every marathon or important overnight race, is my pillow. Yes, I am usually half swearing as I try to stuff my pillow into my already overly packed suitcase, but I always feel better once I’m at my destination and can confidently rest my head on a pillow to which it is accustomed.

7. UnderArmour Recovery Sleepwear.

I have way too many clothes, and I used to have way too many pajamas. These are now the only pajamas I wear. I rotate between my UnderArmour pajama romper, two UnderArmour long sleeve shirts, and a pair of UnderArmour pajama pants. Supposedly they help you recover faster through

return[ing] infrared energy to your body, boosting localized blood flow and upping the amount of oxygen reaching your muscles

which in turn speeds recovery; I have no idea if this is in fact the case, but I will take the placebo effect in all its glory if it works here, because I do indeed feel better after wearing these pajamas for sleeping. You might say this is the effect of the sleep itself, but I stay noticeably more comfortable temperature-wise at night when I wear these. (See point 11; I tend to sleep very hard and not move, and thus I generate heat by not moving from one spot all night!)

8. R-8 Roll Recovery.

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This is definitely in that category of tools where you look at it, and think to yourself: “do I really want to be spending $100 plus on this device that looks like a claw with roller blades?” The answer is unequivocally, yes, yes you do. While the R-8 is a bit tricky to use on the calves (you can do sides of your calves easily enough, but it’s difficult to do the back of your calves without massacring your shin with the other side of wheels), it is worth it for its ability to roll out all angles of your quads like nothing else. Foam rolling is better for your IT band, but I do enjoy how the R-8 almost immediately loosens up your quads and it requires less exertion than foam rolling—this makes it easier to use on a regular basis. Sometimes after a run, I am quite frankly tired. Foam rolling looks…difficult for the amount of energy I then possess. But, I can usually convince myself to roll out my quads and the sides of my calves with the R-8. It is also fairly packable, but expect some questions at airport security about what in the dickens this wheeled claw is that you are trying to transport.

9. Deep Tissue Massages (with a massage therapist who knows athletes’ bodies).

The big caveat here is that the effectiveness of massage as a tool depends upon your massage therapist. Ask your runner friends who already get massages for advice: they likely know who in town is worth seeing on a regular basis.

Most pricey ($500 plus)

10.   NormaTec Recovery Boots.

All those people making fun of the boots secretly want these boots deep down in their hearts if they are honest with themselves. For a full breakdown of how much I love these magical boots that make me feel like an immobile NHL goalie while I am using them, but a magical unicorn runner afterwards, just read this lengthy though interesting blog post here in which I try to explain what they feel like and what I see as the biggest benefits of their use.

11.   TheraGun.

I have wanted one of these bad boys for so long—basically since Christmas break, when I woke up from an 11 hour deep sleep, where I unfortunately lay for evidently the entire night on my left side, and even more unfortunately was on the ROCK hard mattress which is in my room at my parents’ house in Pittsburgh. Since then, my whole upper left back has been really really tight, to the point of pain while doing certain workouts. While some persistent yin yoga has done much to alleviate whatever began over Christmas, my poor back also saw one of these miraculous devices on Instagram, and knew it needed one of these to get all the way better! I tried to no avail to roll out my poor back with one of those spiky little foam roller-esque balls a few months ago; I used this TheraGun for five minutes on the tight area and experienced immediately improved mobility. The yin yoga poses that used to be almost uncomfortable on that left side immediately felt different! I especially enjoy that the TheraGun has different settings and attachments, and perhaps most importantly, it is designed in such a way that it is easy to use on your own back!

12. A great mattress.

Perhaps this is a surprising “tool” to possess, but you cannot know how much you need a good mattress until you are without one. I have a Tomorrow’s Sleep mattress in my own home, and it is like sleeping on heavenly billowy clouds. In fact, by the end of the visit to my parents’ house, my mom was probably really really tired of hearing about how superior my mattress in Charlottesville was! (But it is!) By contrast, in Pittsburgh, I have to throw a mattress topper as well as an additional comforter blanket on top of my actual mattress before I don’t feel like I’m sleeping on a cement floor. (I’m also not that picky—it really is an overly hard mattress! Needless to say, I got my Tomorrow Sleep one in “medium soft”!) Get a good mattress. While you can’t take it with you on marathon trips like you can your pillow, it can make sure you sleep great on a regular basis during training.

While you really don’t need to be using a Stick, an R-8, foam roller, getting a massage, and using some of the more powerful devices above every single day, choosing even a few of the above 10 tools to incorporate into your regular training can go a long way towards fresher, happier legs and body long-term. It is far easier to keep yourself from digging an overtraining hole than to try to claw your way back out of one! All the little steps that you take to ensure a proper recovery add up to a whole new you after a hard workout or race, but you’ll also really notice how much fresher you feel while in the midst of a few consecutive weeks of intensive training. Stay on top of your recovery, and your recovered body will stay with you too: to give you energy and pep in your step for the next time you have a big workout or race.